Welcome to Tennessee's new access guru, Ann Butterworth, to the world of FOI...
The state’s new open-records ombudsman office has a mission to help Tennesseans obtain local government records, but the staff will be relying on the power of persuasion if local officials balk.
The new director, Ann Butterworth, and open-records specialist Elisha Hodge haven’t been given authority to enforce the state law that requires most records to be available to the public. They expect, though, that officials who try to withhold records will relent once the law is explained to them.
“We do not intend to just leave it, but I believe we’ll be able to work with them to come to a mutual agreement,” Butterworth said. “If we don’t, then I don’t know, but our goal is to not come to that situation.”
The Public Records Act says all state, county and municipal records are to be available for inspection by any Tennessee citizen — unless the record is specifically exempt. There are hundreds such exemptions in the law, such as medical records, sensitive military documents and investigative records of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Gov. Phil Bredesen proposed the ombudsman office to help Tennesseans navigate the complex open-records law.
The Legislature approved Bredesen’s budget proposal to create the ombudsman post in the state comptroller’s office, but state law wasn’t changed to give the ombudsman enforcement authority.