Citizens have right to records

Revisions to the state’s Sunshine Law won’t be considered until the state Legislature convenes this month, but Tennesseans can look forward to more immediate help regarding the state’s open records. A new ombudsman office has been created.Under the Public Records Act, all state, county and municipal records are to be available for inspection by any Tennessee citizen unless specifically exempted.

Last year, the Legislature approved Gov. Phil Bredesen’s recommendation to create an ombudsman post to help Tennesseans who need help with public records.

It was formed under the state comptroller’s office.

The need for an ombudsman became clear when a 2004 audit by reporters, college students and volunteers found about third of the time government agencies denied access to records that should be public.

The ombudsman office, headed by Ann Butterworth as director, is a good first step toward ensuring greater public access to the government that citizens of this state fund through their tax dollars.

It’s only a first step because when the Legislature created the new office, it didn’t give it enforcement powers. That means Butterworth and her staff can work with government officials who should make records more accessible – but they won’t have the power to compel them to do so.

The Legislature should address this shortcoming. In the meantime, Butterworth intends to start educating the public and officials about the open records law.

The government belongs to the people. With knowledge and tools, they can take rightful ownership of it.