Upgrades to Open Meeting laws

Upgrades to Open Meeting laws
Over the past year, advocates for stronger open-records laws have seen a battle on whether or not the mandates should be strengthened or reduced. After months of contentious meetings over the law that was already vague and gave public officials leadway, even in some cases, denying requests, Gov. Phil Bredesen and advocates lead the way in giving the law more weight. Beginning July 1, custodians of public records will have stronger language in complying with those requests for records. There is now a window of seven days for a response when a request is made or there will have to be a written explanation to why sought information cannot be delivered. The changes to open-records laws didn’t come without a battle. Across the state, complaints from legislators and local governments included the issue of time and not wanting some records to get into public hands. Bredesen created an ombudsman’s office to deal with not only the complaints of the public but to address issues of public officials. The law also will challenge local officials in the 95 counties in this state to find easier methods of distributing public records. With electronic tools available, the amount of time to search for records, which has been one common complaint heard by the Bredesen administration, might be a great timesaver if utilitized. The issue comes down to, with the state and house agreeing, that those elected into private office are custodians of the public’s records and not the owners of said records. The issue came into effect as a result of an initiative that came after the 2005 Tennessee Waltz corruption sting that led to convictions of five former state lawmakers. State law says all state, county and municipal records are to be available for inspection by any Tennessee citizen unless the record is specifically exempt. This is the first update of this kind to the law since 1973. The update and guidelines will not only help the public with their constitutional right to see records, but will also give guidelines to the public officials in charge of cataloging the information.

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