NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennesseans have a growing suspicion that state and local governments are operating in secret, a statewide poll of voters shows.
Sixty-two percent of the respondents in a poll commissioned by the Chattanooga Times Free Press said they believe state government conducts much of the public’s business in secret, compared with 50% when Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. asked the same question in 2004.
Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the poll indicated increased awareness of state laws about access to public records and meetings. The Associated Press and other news organizations are members of TCOG, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“The public is more interested in participating in government more than anytime in recent history. They are paying attention to how things get down and in some cases taking matters into their own hands,” Gibson said.
State law requires governments to conduct business in open meetings and post adequate notice of meetings. It also makes most state, county and municipal records available to any Tennessee citizen.
The open-records law was revised this year to create a seven-day deadline for records custodians to respond to requests, establish an ombudsman’s office to help citizens who have trouble getting records and develop a reasonable fee schedule for extensive requests.
Tom Griscom, publisher and executive editor of the Times Free Press, said those changes have yet to make a noticeable impact.
The Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. telephone survey of 625 registered Tennessee voters was conducted from Sept. 22 to Sept. 24 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Three questions on open government were dovetailed to questions about the presidential election and national issues.
The poll shows a vast majority of Tennesseans — more than 90% — believe it is important for the press and public to have access to government information. Nearly as many — 87% — believe it is important for the press and public to have access to government actions.
Griscom said he conducted the poll to remind people why newspapers exist.
“Without us, I am unsure who would hold the government accountable,” he said.
Open-government violations have stirred action in Tennessee in recent years. Last year, a court threw out a dozen appointments by the Knox County Commission because of illegal backroom dealmaking that led to a lawsuit by the Knoxville News Sentinel and nine residents.
A 2004 audit in Tennessee by reporters, college students and volunteers found that government agencies denied access to public records about a third of the time. The audit showed that about 40% of Tennessee sheriffs said an arrest report was not a public record — even though the law specifies it should be open to the public.
The Office of Open Records Counsel, officially established in July, is trying to educate citizens on open-records issues. Director Ann Butterworth was skeptical of at least part of the survey because many citizens couldn’t elaborate on what aspects of government they found secretive.
“Transparency is very important, and so is citizen access to government,” Butterworth said. “At the same time, there are some records where broad dissemination is not appropriate.”