McNally, Harwell eye review of open records exceptions

Responding to a suggestion at a Tennessee Press Association meeting, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally recently said the legislature “probably” should reconsider the hundreds of exemptions to the state’s Open Records Act since it was enacted in 1957 and House Speaker Beth Harwell says she’ll think about it.

When the law was first passed declaring most records of public agencies open to citizens, there were just two exceptions – medical records of public hospital patients and security information held by state military officials. Since then, legislators have enacted more than 350 exceptions, according to a Tennessee Coalition for Open Government count.

The House and Senate speakers were questioned about the exceptions and the possibility of reviewing them to determine if all are still warranted. McNally replied the exemptions could be revised to make each subject to expiration unless periodically renewed by the legislature – similar to the “sunset” system in place for all state government departments, boards, commissions and agencies. Each governmental entity must be periodically renewed by the legislature – typically every six years – or it will “sunset” and cease to exist.

“I think that’s an idea we probably need to pursue,” said McNally.

Harwell nodded her head affirmatively during McNally’s remarks, but did not offer a comment. Asked about the idea afterwards, she said, “I’ll look at it.”

“Keys to Open Government,” a booklet published by TCOG, says the state’s public records law “has been amended in such ad hoc and cavalier fashion and is so poorly organized” that there’s no definitive count on exemptions, which are scattered throughout state statutes on a vast array of different subjects.

The Tennessean reports the brief discussion brought “insight and hope for open records advocates who worry about the continuing effort to limit access to public records in Tennessee.” The report includes mention of bills to either increase or limit open records in different governmental areas that are pending in the General Assembly this year.

Excerpt:

Among the more closely watched bills this year are the five pertaining to body cameras, Fisher said.

That’s been an area that remains up in the air in Tennessee and throughout the nation with law enforcement officials having a patchwork approach on releasing footage.

Whatever path Tennessee lawmakers take on the various access to information bills this year, Marshall said it is important for the public and elected officials to think about the overall purpose of open records laws, which is to foster an informed democracy.

“If the public records law gets to a state where that function is being hampered, then there does need to be a conversation to enhance this fundamentally democratic law,” he said.

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