Tennessee editorial roundup
Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:
Bristol Herald Courier on Tennessee’s public record law:
Tennessee badly needs to mend its public records law.
Since the law was enacted in 1957, the state has engaged in a drip, drip, drip of adding exemptions to it, roughly nine a year. When it began, there were two. The Tennessee Public Records Act now has 538 reasons the state can provide to deny you access to some extremely revealing data.
We think that’s wrong. Those exemptions allow lawmakers and their civil servants an excuse to exempt nearly every kind of record you might want to see. They afford unprecedented cover for any type of embarrassing mistake or malfeasance, as well as a convenient excuse for state workers who might not be feeling it that day and just can’t be bothered to go looking for the record.
In a report, the comptroller’s Office of Open Records Counsel identified the hundreds of exceptions in Tennessee Code. And even the comptroller’s chief of staff couldn’t be absolutely sure he’d uncovered the full measure.
“I will tell you, they are hodgepodge all over the Tennessee Code Annotated,” Jason Mumpower told a Senate committee, according to an article by the Associated Press. “I think we found them all.”
Some of the exemptions are contradictory. Some are so dated as to be meaningless. And these are just the ones found in the Tennessee Code. The report, according to the AP story, doesn’t include other exceptions that may be in Tennessee court rules, federal law, common law or agency rules.
This lack of transparency should come as no surprise. Tennessee’s record is pretty poor when it comes to the openness with which its government operates. You’ve read our editorials on how the state keeps its lottery sales numbers secret under some nonsensical fear that revealing the information somehow endangers sales locations. We’ve advocated strongly for that portion of the law to be changed (it’s covered under Section 4-51-108(a)(2) of the Tennessee Education Lottery Implementation Law).
The list of exemptions was requested by Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, following questions from reporters last year. McNally and Harwell want to evaluate which of the exemptions need to be removed or allowed to sunset (only two are presently scheduled to drop out, but not for a few years yet, the AP notes).
We should say here that we applaud those legislative leaders for being open to amending the law (although we lack the confidence, based on a history of public records laws across the nation, that anything meaningful will result).
Sen. Ken Yager, a Kingston Republican, told the Associated Press that he plans to form a subcommittee to review the report and make recommendations for the 2019 session. Those recommendations may include legislation. (We’d add that there’s no maybe about it — the law needs tidying up.)
But he’s being cautious, which is to be appreciated. Some of these exempted records deal with personal or sensitive information that, if improperly released, could materially impact people’s right to privacy, such as medical and personal financial information.
“We should take a very careful approach to this and avoid any knee-jerk type of reaction,” Yager said.
That being so, we hope that Yager’s subcommittee will consider each exemption carefully, rid the law of its most-useless elements, and interpret the others so they provide the maximum amount of leeway to keeping records open and accessible.
As long as the panel does that, we’ll be there, pulling for its recommendations.
We also hope that the subcommittee will go on to audit those other areas in which there may be barriers to access. This piecemeal, sometimes contradictory, body of exemptions may benefit government obscurity, but it does nothing to build trust in the institution. And, let’s face it, government is in dire need of some trust-building these days.
But we have one guideline — a request, really: Err on the side of transparency, on the side of allowing the people to observe and read and understand their government in the fullest measure possible. That must be the ultimate mission.
The Daily Times of Maryville on Gov. Bill Haslam appointing a steering committee to develop a statewide plan for future water availability:
While the world has been obsessed with oil as the fluid that lubricates economies — liquid gold it’s called — a broader perspective would put that notion to rest. Consider the course of human history, then look ahead to the future. Everywhere, you’ll find water at the crux, especially if there is not enough to drink or grow crops.
In 2016, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence ranked water scarcity as second only to terrorism as the greatest threat to our national security. The aging infrastructure was tapped as the major concern. Worsening droughts was another.
If nothing else, many places in America will have to face the end of inexpensive water. It’s not complicated. The oldest economic principle in the book lays it out in three words: supply and demand.
It would be easy for Tennesseans, with our rivers and reservoirs, to presume our state is immune to such circumstance. Bill Haslam doesn’t think so, and the governor is right.
In January, to not much acclaim, he appointed a steering committee of leaders from federal, state and local governments, industry, academia, environmental advocacy groups and public utilities to develop a statewide plan for future water availability in Tennessee.
The plan is called TN H2O. The initiative will include an assessment of current water resources and recommendations to help ensure Tennessee has an abundance of water to support future population and economic growth. The steering committee will submit a draft of TN H2O to the governor and will make it available for public input by October.
You’re probably thinking, nothing wrong with that, but what’s the point? Maybe not much of one, not unless you think Tennessee’s manufacturing, agriculture, energy and tourism efforts can do without an abundant supply of water.
Go ahead, go the kitchen, turn on the tap, fill a glass with crystal clarity that never fails to quench your thirst. Take it for granted.
Haslam notes that abundant, clean water has been a strategic advantage for Tennessee and is critical to our quality of life. It is a natural resource that has to be managed appropriately for the state to continue to grow and prosper. The governor is right.
Tennessee’s population is estimated to double in the next 50 years. This growth, along with recent concerns over the utilization of the Memphis Sands Aquifer, droughts that have impacted numerous Tennessee communities, failures of aging drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, and interstate battles over water rights, all stress the need to develop a statewide plan for addressing water availability.
Imagine you’re living in Flint, Mich. You’re handing a glass of tap water to your child to drink. You’re wondering if you’re being a terrible parent, trusting the government again. Wondering if it’s so pure and safe, why is it tinted? Why does it have an odor?
TN H2O will pay particular attention to surface and groundwater, water and wastewater infrastructure, water reuse and land conservation, as well as institutional and legal framework. Working groups composed of subject matter experts will conduct the research and gather information. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation will oversee the development of TN H2O.
It’s not a moment too soon to ensure Tennessee is guaranteed an abundant and quality supply of water. You may not see it now, looking through that clear glass, but time is running out. Drip, drip, drip.
The Johnson City Press on state Rep. Matthew Hill’s bill to create a lawmaker executive board overseeing the Tri-Cities Airport’s pursuit of its Aerospace Park project:
Tennessee state Rep. Matthew Hill’s bill to create a state lawmaker executive board overseeing the Tri-Cities Airport’s pursuit of its Aerospace Park project is an idea that should never grow wings. And before it goes any further, Hill, a Jonesborough Republican, should simply withdraw the bill.
Hill’s proposal is a prime example of government overreach. The General Assembly primarily is a legislative body tasked with making laws, not day-to-day decisions. The Airport Authority is governed by a 12-person board duly appointed by the region’s elected bodies and includes the elected mayors of Sullivan and Washington counties. Board meetings are public. Establishing another layer of political control over local decision-making would be big government at its worst.
The amount of due diligence done on the Aerospace Park by airport staff, in particular airport Executive Director Patrick Wilson, has been massive. Wilson has conducted numerous meetings with airport partners — Northeast Tennessee cities and counties — to put together an estimated $20 million financial package to grade the airport’s south side airfield, making the Aerospace Park attractive for aviation-related economic development.
That financial package has been guaranteed by the cities and counties through an intergovernmental agreement signed last October.
The state of Tennessee has boosted the project with a grant worth millions of dollars. The regional cooperation to get the agreement signed has been nothing short of spectacular. And Airport Trade Development Specialist Mark Canty, one of the point men selling Aerospace Park to the aviation industry, has been attending trade shows to spread the word.
A most worrisome section of Hill’s bill would prohibit the Tri-Cities Airport Authority from employing or entering into a contract with a lobbyist. Besides potentially putting a damper on the already-robust effort, the bill which would violate the authority’s First Amendment rights.
Airport officials estimate Aerospace Park could create up to 2,000 jobs. But Hill’s bill could blow up all of the great work that has gone into this project and stop the potential growth before it ever gains real altitude.