Tennessee's Public Records law was enacted in 1957, declaring that "all state, county and municipal records shall at all times during business hours be open for personal inspection by any citizen of Tennessee."
Seventeen years later, lawmakers adopted its companion Open Meetings Act, which says: "All meetings of any governing body are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times, except as provided by the Constitution of Tennessee."
In theory, the two laws work in tandem to give Tennesseans broad access to state and local government.
The reality has been less than the ideal. About 230 exemptions have been amended into the Public Records Act, including many -- medical records, Social Security numbers and student records -- that most people favor.
A "Right to Know Audit" in 2004 by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government sent volunteers into government offices in all 95 counties asking to see some benign public document that citizens have a legal right to inspect -- items such as the minutes of planning commission meetings, where officials decide what can be built on the vacant lot next door.
On average, the coalition volunteers were denied that right about one-third of the time.
In October, a Knoxville jury of 12 citizens ruled that their county commission violated the Open Meetings Act when members met privately in small groups to select appointees to 12 top offices, including the sheriff, county clerk, trustee, register of deeds and eight commission seats. The decisions were later rubber-stamped in public.
The Knox County case raised concerns among local government officials statewide when the judge threatened commissioners with contempt of court if they violated the law again. It brought to a head three decades of frustration with the so-called "Sunshine Law" among many local officials.
Coincidentally, a separate effort by media and open-government advocates to update the two laws for an era of electronic data-keeping and communications gave the associations that represent city and county governments, school boards, public hospitals, public utilities and others an opening to seek modifications in the Open Meetings Act. The legislature created a special committee to study issues and propose remedies. In its hearings this fall, both sides pressed their cases...