Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Letter: Getting the runaround on information

Commercial Appeal
Letter to the Editor

It used to be easy to obtain information at City Hall, but as your March 13 article ("Citizens wage fight for public documents") notes it has become a very time-consuming process. During the past year I've been given the wrong records, had to submit more than one request for material, had to wait additional weeks for photocopies, and have been told documents didn't exist that later turned up.

What is even more troubling is when the city conducts business through unelected bodies; should the public have less access to information concerning those decisions? Week before last, at the League of Women Voters meeting, Benny Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), said his group's meetings were not open to the public -- that the only way to go is to be invited. Well, the RDC is spending taxpayer money, planning to use eminent domain to take what is supposed to be park land and turn it over to private developers, and has gotten federal money to figure out how to turn the harbor into a lake. Citizens have to be invited to learn more about it!

Sue A. Williams


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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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Saturday, March 05, 2005

Letter: Land bridge is waste of precious funds

The Commercial Appeal
Letter to the Editor

This week the League of Women Voters hosted a meeting about the proposed land bridge that is a big part of the Riverfront Development Corp.'s master plan for Downtown's waterfront. RDC president Benny Lendermon and Virginia McLean, of Friends for Our Riverfront, were guests.

No matter how you view the proposed changes and their impact on our city, we all must agree that our first priority must be fiscal responsibility. As the numbers began to come out, grudgingly on the part of Lendermon, it became clear we are talking hundreds of millions more than this city has ever put into any public works project.

In a time of severe budget crisis, when our mayor considers cutting $86 million from the city schools, do we need to spend $100 million on the RDC to develop plans for spending hundreds of millions more? Where are our priorities? Should we invest in our people, our poverty, our crime, our education, our homelessness and our police forces? Probably, but for some reason, our elected officials are more interested in creating estate homes on the harbor and turning our Public Promenade into high-priced condos.

We are robbed each time we get our property tax bills. It's time for us to get rid of every politician who votes for funding anything until our children have a decent education. They are our future, not a land bridge that lines the pockets of some of the wealthiest players in the game.

Jeffrey Chipman

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