Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:
Knoxville News Sentinel on viewing public records in the state:
The state of Tennessee wants to find out what citizens think of being charged to look at records they already have paid the government to keep.
The Comptroller's Office of Open Records Counsel, in conjunction with the Advisory Committee on Open Government, will be accepting comments and holding public hearings on a proposed bill that would allow state and local government agencies to charge fees for document inspections. Citizens should speak out to stop this misguided bill that would choke access to public records.
The Tennessee Public Records Act gives citizens the right to review the records of state and local governments. There are more than 350 exemptions to the law, but otherwise public records are supposed to be made available for public inspection.
State law allows government agencies to charge reasonable fees for copying, including the labor costs involved in duplicating documents, but the mere inspection of records is free. That would change under the bill filed in this year's legislative session by state Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, and state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville. The bill would allow government agencies to charge fees just to look at public documents.
A similar bill introduced in 2011 would have resulted in citizens shelling out an estimated $1.7 million to agencies to review records they already own as Tennesseans, according to the Legislature's Fiscal Review Committee staff. The committee staff reported that this year's bill, if passed into law, "will to some degree, discourage requests for open records inspections."
That is chilling for anyone who believes that democracy demands open and transparent government.
After opposition from the Tennessee Press Association and the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (the News Sentinel is a member of both organizations), the sponsors sent the bill to "summer study." The Open Records Counsel is handling the public comments on the bill.
A hearing will be held in Knoxville, 4-6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 15, at 12 Oaks Executive Park, 5401 Kingston Pike, Building 2, Suite 350. Other hearings will be held in Nashville and Jackson on Sept. 16 and Sept. 17, respectively.
Citizens and government entities can fill out surveys available at the Office of Open Records Counsel website: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/openrecords/.
The Open Records Counsel is seeking comments particularly on whether charges should be permitted and, if so, how they should be determined and whether any records would be exempt.
We urge the public to answer that fees to peruse public records should not be allowed. Period.
The citizens of Tennessee, through their tax dollars, pay state agencies to create and maintain public records. The agencies are the custodians of the records, not the owners. The people are the owners, and should not be forced to pay to look at those records.
News organizations review public records more than other groups, but by no means would journalists be the only ones affected. Title companies research deeds on a daily basis, attorneys ask for records pertaining to their cases, a neighborhood organization might want to look at documents related to a nearby environmental incident. Building permits, marriage licenses, the minutes of public meetings, records pertaining to public grant recipients and volumes of other records could fall under the bill's shadow. Some are available online, but the vast majority are not. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 15 percent of Tennesseans lived in households without a computer, much less Internet access.
In short, this is a bill that would adversely affect every Tennessean in one way or another. The citizens of Tennessee should demand a transparent and responsive government. By speaking out at the Sept. 15 hearing or filing comments online, Tennesseans can assert their ownership rights over public records.
Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee on online testing in state's public schools:
Tennessee's public schools this school year are using technology to make a major leap in how students take state tests.
Students will now take tests on a computer, sending paper and pencil the way of rotary phones, cassette players and record albums.
In this time when most young children and teens are computer savvy, we can only hope that struggling schools will see an uptick in achievement test scores, especially in reading.
Last week, the state released a picture of where schools are in terms of having computers and adequate bandwidth in place to allow students to take the tests online. The self-survey of districts showed more than 99 percent of the schools — 1,691 out of 1,701 — reported their networks were test ready. Last year, just over 88 percent reported adequate bandwidth. About 90 percent of schools reported having enough devices to give the test online.
Shelby County Schools officials said the necessary devices are scheduled to arrive in mid-October. The county's municipal school districts also are in good shape.
The new tests are a big step not only for students, but also for the state Department of Education. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the state is ready to deal with any glitches. That is good to know because there will be hiccups.
Overall, though, having the students take the tests via computer is the 21st century thing to do.
The Jackson (Tennessee) Sun on Memphis Regional Megasite in state:
The Memphis Regional Megasite in Haywood County is one of the premier sites in the nation available for development of manufacturing operations.
Until recently, many have expected the site to be developed for one large tenant, such as an automaker.
But Randy Boyd, the state's new Economic and Community Development commissioner, says the site is actually too large for just one major manufacturer. He says the state is looking into how it can split the property so several companies could move in.
Boyd says the state now recognizes that it over-spec'd the site and said, "It's just way too big for a single factory."
In fact, Boyd said that three of the state's largest manufacturers could easily fit in less than half of the Megasite. Those sites include the 715-acre Nissan complex in Smyrna, which Boyd has said is the largest auto manufacturer in North America; the 352-acre Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga; and the Hankook Tire plant under construction on 469 acres in Clarksville.
The megasite takes in a total of 4,100 acres. The state says it has invested $108 million in development of the site.
Boyd said the site could hold five to eight auto manufacturing plants.
Haywood County Mayor Franklin Smith is concerned about the idea of breaking up the megasite. Smith has worked diligently and been a tireless proponent of the megasite. We respect his concerns, but we think it is worth considering multiple tenants for the megasite.
One tenant the size of an automaker would be expected to create thousands of jobs. Multiple tenants would only increase the job growth and the diversity of supporting businesses that would no doubt spring up across West Tennessee.
We think it's worth keeping the options open for the megasite as Boyd and Gov. Bill Haslam work to market the property.