NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has released more details of economic meetings in Japan and South Korea amid criticism from transparency advocates about lack of details about the seven-day trip.
The governor’s office initially announced in its public schedule that Haslam was traveling to Asia on an economic development trip, but spokesman David Smith declined to elaborate, saying “we don’t talk about private meetings.”
Department of Economic and Community Development spokesman Clint Brewer in an email Tuesday evening said five employees from the department and a member of the governor’s security detail were joining Haslam on the trip.
Brewer didn’t name the cities or companies the governor was visiting, but said one aim of the trip was to discuss the establishment of airline connections with Tennessee. A cost estimate wouldn’t be available until the trip is completed, he said.
Haslam left Saturday and is scheduled to return on Friday.
The lack of more full detail about the trade mission gave rise to criticism from open government advocates.
“It’s an absurd situation when they feel they can withhold information from us,” said Ben Cunningham, the founder and president of the Nashville Tea Party. “They’re meeting with huge corporations in order to give away our taxpayer money, and it’s just crazy that they’re that arrogant about keeping public business secret.”
Cunningham acknowledged that state law protects many of the details surrounding active recruitment of businesses from open records laws, but suggested that that should change.
“The public needs to be informed about these deals,” he said. “We ought to know what’s going on, we ought to know where they’re going, who they’re negotiating with and how much of our money they’re proposing to give away.”
Tennessee Common Cause Chairman Dick Williams said he understands that the governor may not want to scare away potential investors, but argued that he could divulge more details about this travels without giving away the companies he is targeting.
“It’s one of those things where it’s a matter of general openness of government to be more forthcoming with what his activities,” he said. “I would think they could be a little more precise without necessarily naming the company.”
Leaked documents surrounding the state’s efforts last year to persuade Volkswagen to add another vehicle production line at its Chattanooga plant showed to what lengths the state is willing to go with economic incentive. Under that proposal, which ultimately failed amid a fight over labor issues at the plant, the state said it was willing to offer $207 million in cash and cash equivalents and $93 million in tax credits for Volkswagen to add 960 production jobs and 240 contractor positions at the plant.
“We demand this transparency and disclosure in every area of government, and yet in this one area where they’re giving away hundreds of millions of our taxpayer money typically, they refuse to disclose what’s going on,” Cunningham said.