Sunday, March 13, 2005

Citizens wage fight for public documents: Sunshine Week to push for awareness of law

Commercial Appeal
By Aimee Edmondson
Link to original

Your average everyday Joe might have given up.

But Joe Saino won't.

Last fall he requested public records from the City of Memphis, sending letter after letter, waiting in vain for months.

Then the self-described "ordinary citizen" filed suit in Chancery Court, declaring he was entitled to the information under the state's Public Records Act.

And only then did city officials hand over the documents - paying $288.50 in court costs last week when Saino agreed to drop the case.

"Most people would be intimidated," said the politically savvy Saino, a retired electrical engineer.

"When officials stonewall, people don't know what to do."

This is one example of why newspapers and advocacy groups across the country are sponsoring Sunshine Week starting today .

Headed up by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the campaign is being held to press for the public's access to government.

News organizations want to raise awareness of the laws regarding open records and government meetings.

Tennessee residents could stand to learn a lot more about the open records law and the federal Freedom of Information Act, according to a recent study.

An Investigative Reporters and Editors report rated Tennessee's public records and open meetings laws sixth worst among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

"A citizen has to sue to enforce the law," said Nashville newspaper editor Frank Gibson.

Lawsuits are cropping up, not only in Memphis. Two Big Sandy residents filed suit last month, naming the Benton County mayor, several commissioners and other county officials, claiming they were denied access to public records and accusing officials of violating the state's open meetings law.

Tennessee newspapers also conducted the state's first public records audit last October, finding that 40 percent of school districts refused to hand over or could not produce safety reports mandated by the legislature.

Also, 45 percent of Tennessee sheriffs wouldn't or couldn't produce basic crime information.

Along with Saino, advertising and public relations expert John Malmo of Memphis has been trying to get public documents.

Both are exasperated.

The city's policy now requires that all records requests be funneled through City Atty. Sara Hall's office, rather than department heads.

That change has resulted in long delays. Both Malmo and Saino requested records about payments made under a city retirement plan.

Among other things, they've asked for public information about retired city employees who received pensions after only 12 years of service.

They want to know how much the policy is costing taxpayers.

"We've seen clear efforts to stop the public from getting information," Malmo said. "It's absurd. It's ludicrous."

For information about Sunshine week and open records laws, go to www.tcog.info (Tennessee Coalition for Open Government).

Copyright (c) 2005 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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