- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 13, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Officials mulling over the privatization of operations at state buildings, college campuses, prisons and armories are being discouraged from putting their thoughts into emails.

Terry Cowles, who is in charge of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s office of Strategies for Efficiency in Real Estate Management, or SEREM, told reporters Tuesday that the group “put that control in place” to prevent the release of what he called premature or incorrect information.

“We want to provide you all and the public with as much information as we can, but we have to have some opportunity to make sure in fact that what we’re providing is the right information,” he said.

Democratic State Sen. Jeff Yarbro said avoiding written communication is an effort to circumvent open records laws.

“It looks like the whole administration is avoiding the law against keeping secret the formation of public policy decisions,” Yarbro said.

Records obtained by WTVF-TV in Nashville last month included a timetable for outsourcing state facilities that appeared at odds with the governor’s public assertion that any decision on whether even to proceed with privatization was still months away.

Cowles called the released timetable a “very early draft” that has no bearing on current considerations.

And yet “that schedule still kind of lingers around and creates questions at this particular point when it has no relationship to where we are at this point in the project whatsoever,” he said.

Another internal assessment suggested that efforts to trim instructors’ space requirements at state colleges and universities by increasing telecommuting and temporary offices could undermine Haslam’s signature Drive to 55 initiative to improve graduation rates. “Data indicates student success is correlated with level of student engagement with faculty and staff members,” according to the report.

Cowles said that higher education is no longer being included for alternative workplace solutions because the “numbers are so insignificant at this particular juncture that we saw no reason at this point to go forward with that.”

Cowles later told state lawmakers that meetings of steering committees set up to advise the SEREM office are not open to the public. That position drew the criticism of Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis.

“That’s not what government is here for,” she said after the meeting. “We need a lot more transparency.”

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