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Resident wants more transparency in government

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Ruth Fennell

Editor's note: This letter was originally sent to state representatives.

I watched the video of your 2/15/17 State Subcommittee meeting (http://tnga.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=354&clip_id=12778) and would like to offer my personal experience in connection with requesting government records:

In Sumner County, for the last several years, there have been conscious efforts by the County Commission, the Hendersonville, TN Mayor and Board of Aldermen, and the School Board to restrict citizen access to PUBLIC records - you know the information and services that taxpayer dollars are paying for...

I have spent countless hours being obstructed by the School Board in access to information. (I had one request take FIVE MONTHS to complete.) Friends have been obstructed by the City of Hendersonville. Others have had to fight Sumner County.

The Sumner County School Board has wasted almost $200,000 of taxpayer money on a lawsuit because they did not want to respond to requests from citizens by phone, thru their website, or by email. In November of 2015, Judge Dee Gay of Sumner County ruled against their current policy of only allowing written requests thru the post office or made in person.

When they tried to continue their practices in resistance to the Judge's Order, in January, 2016, he responded by saying they had "an attitude of arrogance" on how they were behaving. According to Judge Gay, the School Board had "five years of blatant violation of the law" (TN Coalition for Open Government: http://tcog.info/judge-calls-sumner-schools-arrogant-denies-request-to-stay-his-ruling/) and that is because YOU, the Tennessee legislature, were not CLEAR on your definitions used in the Open Records law!

Rep. Rogers bill attempts to address that.

As Rep. Sanderson said (at 20:45 in the meeting video), "we all use email." That is ABSOLUTELY CORRECT! So, why should ANY government entity be allowed to restrict that communication venue just "for their own convenience?" The way I see it, either government is moving into the 21st Century or they are resisting being accountable to the citizens.

Rep. Sanderson said (at 19:52 in the video), "Locals prefer to set their own policy" -- In the case of the Sumner County School Board, yes, they do.... Because, they want to make it as hard as humanly possible for citizens to get information easily and efficiently. Instead, they would rather spend (heading toward) $200,000 of taxpayer money on a losing (which they are continuing to appeal) lawsuit to resist accepting email requests - because THEY want to have the power to control citizen access to their Public Records!

Maybe you guys are smarter than I am, but how is clarifying that "written" CAN also INCLUDE email interfering from that? In the case of Sumner County, they have been saying for the last two years that they don't even have to CONSIDER acknowledging email as a form of communication. Unless you have been under a rock for the last 10-20 years, it is asinine to dismiss the use of email - its ability to communicate quickly, ask for clarification, provide information, etc.

What would happen if the TN House or TN Senate ONLY accepted citizen inquiries IN PERSON or by mail??? No phone calls, no emails.... Is that realistic?

If YOU followed Sumner County School Board's logic and demanded the same "methods" of communication as they do, for me to express my thoughts on this issue, I would have had to take time off work and fight traffic to drive down to the Capitol, find a place to park (), then find each one of your individual offices, speak to your Aide in person, have them write down my information, make note of what I wanted to share with you, then after I had spent about 3 hours doing that, I'd have to turn back around, fight traffic and get home... taking 4-5 hours of my time.

Or, again, because "email" is not specifically mentioned as an acknowledged, approved communication method for submitting Open Records requests in Sumner County School District, if you followed their lead, I would have had to "write" you a letter, address it, put it in the mail, wait for it to work its way thru the Legislative mail system and for you to receive it, then write me a letter back either asking for more information or responding to me. Because you would have had seven business days to even put your response in the mail, this process could conceivably take over two weeks. By that time, the votes on this bill would have been taken long ago.

I understand that the government entities in your areas may resist wanting to use email to respond to citizen requests. HOWEVER, if YOUR citizens don't deserve the most efficient method of communication for information, then your local government entities just need to stop using email for ANYTHING! If it is NOT good enough to use for their "customers," then it should NOT be good enough to communicate internally, to your offices, or to anyone else! In other words, they want to use email when it is convenient for THEM, but not when it is convenient for the citizens... I'm sorry, but that is UNACCEPTABLE!

The TN Constitution says in Article 1, Section 1, Subsection 19, "The free communication of thoughts and opinions, is one of the invaluable rights of man, and every citizen may freely SPEAK, WRITE, AND PRINT on any subject."

I seriously doubt that those framers of the TN Constitution had email in mind when they wrote it, however, the POINT of that principle is that the Tennessee Constitution SPECIFICALLY ENCOURAGES citizens to share information, it ENCOURAGES government entities to be able to hear from citizens, it ENCOURAGES citizen engagement, and I think those framers would be sorely disappointed to say the least that ANY elected official would be looking for ways to discourage or obstruct citizen input - whether it involved an unimagined (to them) method, such as email, or not!

The framers couldn't imagine websites or videos either like the one I just watched on your meeting, but yet you use that method to support keeping citizens such as myself informed... Should that also be excluded because it is "inconvenient" for government? -- I mean someone has to take the video, make sure it gets posted to the website, clearly identified, able to be found on a search, etc. That takes "manpower" "time" and "money" so if you don't want to support using email as a method of communication, then I guess we should also dismiss websites and videos?

The TN Constitution also says in Article I, Section 1, Subsection 23 that Tennessee citizens have the right to "to instruct their representatives" - and, even though I am not in your districts, the Constitution doesn't define "their" so I am taking it at its BROADEST sense.

As for the concern expressed by Rep. Sanderson that "ease of email" (25:23 in the video) might increase "frivolous" requests (who gets to define frivolous??? Government or the citizen?) - please keep in mind, the more that citizens feel they can TRUST their government, the fewer requests should be submitted!! It is BECAUSE of government obstruction and refusal to make it "as efficient as possible" for the citizen that this now even becomes an issue!

Bottom line, as Rep. Husley said (at 23:45 in the video), "most folks are using email now and more than we've ever done before, ....so we are going to codify that email is now one of the accepted ways to make your request?" BINGO!!! EXACTLY CORRECT!!!

THEREFORE,

I am respectfully asking you to support using technology on behalf of citizens!

I am respectfully asking you to support efficient, effective methods for government transparency!

I am respectfully asking you to support HB 0058!

Ancient Greeks said that government only has ONE purpose - to improve the lives of its citizens!

I hope that you will do that by supporting this bill! Thank you!

Ruth Fennell

Gallatin, TN

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March 19, 2017 at 2:54pm
Taxpayers should have full and ease of access to all public records. Making it hard to access information suggests officials are trying to hide their actions by keeping the public in the dark.
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