Attaboy, Frank Gibson!
Gov. Phil Bredesen on Tuesday said he disagrees with a proposal by Comptroller John Morgan to split the responsibilities of a newly created open records ombudsman among several people in his office.
Morgan told an open government study panel that the best way to use the $100,000 appropriated for the ombudsman was to hire one non-attorney and to farm out more complex records questions to his existing legal staff.
"We see this as really a role and a function that won't necessarily be one position," Morgan said. "If somebody looks for the ombudsman, what they'll see......
is the Office of the Comptroller _ and us fulfilling that role as a facilitator of access to records."
The Legislature, which elects the comptroller, included money in the budget to create an ombudsman to help citizens gain access to public records without having to go through the courts.
"What we don't want to do it get this so wrapped up in the identity of one person that when that person goes on vacation that there's nobody to call," Morgan said.
Bredesen said the first he had heard of Morgan's proposal was when asked about it by The Associated Press later on Tuesday. He said he would encourage a different approach.
"I think it
requires the focus of a relatively senior person and would certainly urge that on him," he said. "My gut feeling is a single senior person is a better direction."
Bredesen, who first proposed creating the ombudsman, also disagreed with Morgan's view that the money appropriated for the position wouldn't be enough to cover the salary, benefits, travel and other expenses.
"Then we should have appropriated more," Bredesen said. "But if the cost is a problem, I will find him some additional money."
Morgan told the panel he plans to advertise within two months for a new staffer who would help field inquires about access to public records. More complex
legal questions would be handled by an attorney on staff and in consultation with the Attorney General's office. A toll-free number would be established for the ombudsman staff, he said.
Morgan said he wants to ensure open records advice be based only on existing law.
"We'll try very hard not to get drawn into the political discussion or the policy debate about what the government is doing," he said.
Morgan added that there are also concerns that the ombudsman's decisions won't be legally binding, or that local officials would be free from liability if they follow rulings that turn out to be wrong.
Frank Gibson, executive director of
the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the liability question is already settled by current law that prevents officials from being held criminally or civilly liable for any documents they release.
Gibson said the ombudsman's role will be to help resolve "sometimes silly disputes over information."
By clarifying existing laws and legal precedents, the ombudsman will serve as "somebody in authority that can tell a public official: 'That's a public record. Release it,'" he said. "Or somebody who can tell a citizen that, 'I'm sorry, the Legislature says that that's not a public record."