Jared Felkins: Transparency works when there’s willingness to be open

“We seek a free flow of information...we are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies and competitive values.” — President John F. Kennedy
Aug 23, 2014

As reporters and editors, the word transparency is possibly one of the most significant in our vocabulary out of the millions we have to choose from each day. 

We are in a constant fight to keep the smoke, clouds and haze away from a clear view of government and what it does on a daily basis. 

Recently in Lebanon, that same transparency we fight for was threatened, but we have no reason to believe the threat came about on purpose or with malicious intent. 

Nonetheless, the threat was evident, and the duty fell upon our shoulders as the newspaper and voice of this community to remedy it. 

About a month ago, the Lebanon City Council sought to enact an open records policy and an accompanying criminal history records policy for the city and its residents. These are the same policies one might have read about making its way through the steps to become law as I write this column. In fact, the council passed these policies in the form of resolutions Tuesday. 

And that’s a good thing. It’s important for citizens to know the process by which they need to follow to gain access to city government documents, including personnel files, copies of the budget or simply a police report. Now, this process is available at City Hall and on the city’s website for all to see and understand. 

What’s important to know at this point is that the transparency in Lebanon’s government is actually what made us aware of the initial policies and allowed our newspaper to work with city officials to get it right. 

When it appeared on the agenda for vote originally about a month ago, the policies were given to us in full to allow us to scrutinize it. Again, this is how government should work. 

Realizing the policies needed some alterations, we quickly made contact with councilors that weekend to try and delay a vote until we could present our concerns. Our effort was successful, which allowed us two weeks before another council meeting to voice our concerns. The day after the council meeting, city Finance Director Robert Springer emailed us to set up a meeting. 

Please understand, our list of concerns wasn’t lengthy. They weren’t complicated. Most importantly, they weren’t selfish. 

Certainly, the changes would allow us to more efficiently do our jobs. But we serve as watchdogs for the people when it comes to government. Also, our proposed changes benefit the people, as well. 

We enlisted the help of the good folks at the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government to help us pick out some specific changes and build an argument to change them. 

During our meeting, Springer said he took the policy straight from the state comptroller’s office. But we found some items with which we disagreed. 
Initially we had a problem with some language regarding schools. Since the city doesn’t have any schools, it was all removed. 
The city was going to require each person to show photo identification each time a request was made. We changed it to allow City Hall to keep a copy of a person’s ID on file. 
The city was going to require any copying be done only on the city’s copier. We changed it to allow for people to take photographs or scans of the documents using smart devices, thus saving time, resources and money.
In the criminal history report policy, or how it handles police and fire reports, we had language added to allow for oral or written requests to be taken by the police and fire departments instead of just written requests. 
We also had Springer add police reports to its list of items routinely released. Otherwise people would have had to pay for those more than four requested in a month. 

Springer and other city officials worked diligently with us to hear our requests, and all were changed before the council adopted the policies. It was a win-win for the city, your newspaper and the public. We’re thankful to Springer and the city for their understanding, as well as TCOG for its help. 

In the end, transparency lives on in Lebanon. 

Jared Felkins is The Democrat’s director of content. Email him at jfelkins@lebanondemocrat.com or follow him on Twitter @paperboyfelkins. 

 

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