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Burris On Media: State FOI

Dr. Larry Burriss

Murfreesboro, Tenn It’s been said that all politics is local, meaning the most important political decisions are really made at the local level, not the state and national. And if that’s true, then it follows that the most important examples of political and public information are also local.

So, let’s take a quick look at who can look at local public records, and what records are available to the local public.

Under the Tennessee open records laws, almost all records involving the expenditure of state and local money are open to anyone who wants to look at them. That means that anyone in the state can go to where the records are kept, and, upon reasonable notice, look at them. You don’t have to be a public official, you don’t even have to have a good reason to want to see them. In other words, anyone in the state is entitled to look at the documents, for any reason they want.

I also believe that part of an official’s job is to answer requests from the public for information and records.

Now, a corollary to this is that any time government officials are asked to produce records, and they refuse to produce the records, or the records are heavily edited, or the agency makes it difficult to get the records, it almost always means the agency is trying to hide something from the public.

So what does this mean locally? It means that when, for example, a school principal writes checks, those checks are open to public inspection. Anyone who wants to has the right to look at the checks and see who the check was made out to, the amount, and who signed the check.

Now, apparently some folks don’t understand why documents should be available to anyone who wants to see them. Quite simply, it’s because what government officials do is my business. They are working for me. And if they don’t want me to know what they are doing, then they shouldn’t do things they want to hide.

The Tennessee Open Records law is very clear: if you want to see a public document, you can. It doesn’t matter who you are, why you want to see it, and what you are going to do with the information. Public information belongs to the public. It’s really that simple.

I’m Larry Burriss.