- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:


Feb. 18

The Johnson City Press on public records:

It’s important to remember “public” is the key word in public records. These records belong to the people, not to politicians or bureaucrats.

Every Tennessee citizen has a right to obtain certain information under the state’s Public Records Act. The law directs the courts to construe the act broadly “so as to give the fullest possible access to public records.”

Even so, enforcement of Tennessee’s public records law often ranks among the lowest in the nation because aggrieved citizens are forced to engage in costly litigation to inspect public records and documents. The Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel was created to assist Tennesseans who encounter problems in accessing open records.

There is the vexing problem of state officials looking to close key public records. As Press staff writer Zach Vance reported last week, state lawmakers are looking to restrict requests for documents that are now open to Tennesseans.

One such measure is HB0626/SB0590 filed by House Majority Leader Rep. William Lambert, R-Cottontown. His bill would penalize Tennesseans who use public records requests as a form of “harassment,” which the bill defines as making three or more public record requests within one year “in a manner that causes a reasonable person to be seriously abused, intimidated, threatened or harassed.”

The Associated Press reported Lambert filed this bill in response to the city of Gallatin receiving 130 public records requests in one year from a citizen. Such cases are the exception, not the rule, which raises the question: Do we really need a new law that could be used to discourage Tennesseans from rightfully seeking the records they are entitled to inspect?

Two other bills would restrict vital public information on traffic accident reports and 911 calls. HB1107/SB1346 would conceal information about people involved in traffic accidents from police reports. Some of the cited information, like a person’s driver’s license number and insurance documentation, is already confidential.

HB0335/SB0386 would amend the Open Records Act to conceal 911 calls, transmissions and recordings of emergency communications. The bill would allow a 911 call to be released with the written consent of the caller involved.

Both measures threaten the transparency Tennesseans have come to expect from their public records. It also severely hamstrings the news media when it comes to reporting how and where these public services are being delivered and to whom.

On a positive note, Tennesseans for Open Government backs a bill that eliminates a problem in transparency when it comes naming businesses who are getting major tax breaks from the state. HB1265/SB0513 would remove an exemption that conceals the names of businesses receiving tax credits for economic development, how much those credits are and whether those businesses are fulfilling the agreed-upon terms with the state.

The people of Tennessee have a right to see the names of those who are benefiting from such public programs.

Online: http://www.johnsoncitypress.com/


Feb. 20

The Johnson City Press on constables in Tennessee:

Constables in Tennessee must provide their own uniforms, vehicles and fuel and don’t have to undergo the same level of training required of other law enforcement officers. Nor do they earn much of a living. They receive no salary and are compensated only for delivering legal documents and similar endeavors.

So why would someone want to be a constable? Perhaps because they covet the power it gives them. Constables are handed the authority of a professional law enforcement officer, a position for which they otherwise might not be qualified. They answer to no one but the voters at the next election. They are not supervised. They do not report to anyone. And you can run for constable in Tennessee if you’ve not been convicted of offering or giving a bribe, of larceny or other offense “declared infamous by law.”

That’s pretty much it. Get elected and you can have arrest powers without passing police minimum standards, psychological tests and specialized schools. And that’s why we have situations such as what afflicts Constable William Creasy II of Hawkins County. Creasy was elected a constable last fall, and it wasn’t long before he conducted a traffic stop with blue lights flashing. Problem was, he had yet to take office and now faces charges as a result of indictment by the grand jury for official misconduct and oppression, both felonies.

Constables have been around since colonial days and, over time, states and jurisdictions have eliminated the position due to similar problems. Virginia did away with them completely. Tennessee jurisdictions began abolishing constables in 1978 when Davidson, Shelby, Hamilton and Knox counties eliminated them. Over the years, Blount, Pickett, Meigs Morgan, Loudon, Bledsoe, Rhea, Cumberland, Roane and Claiborne have joined them.

Washington, Carter, Johnson, Sullivan and Unicoi counties still elect constables. And they should keep them, as is their decision to make. It’s the state that needs to reign constables in by removing some of their authority and requiring higher standards for seeking the office.

The Tennessee Constable Association says constables can perform a number of services that would otherwise fall to full-time officers, including evictions, home security checks, serving process or subpoenas, security escorts, summons, business security checks, doing traffic control as needed and garnishments. Those are important duties better handled by constables, freeing professional law enforcement to handle crime.

What constables shouldn’t be doing is pulling drivers over, chasing wanted people, executing warrants, arresting people and such other functions best left to fully trained, full-time officers.

In Tennessee, however, constables are not confined to the district in which they’re elected. They have powers throughout the state except for those counties where they have been abolished.

It is long past time that the state legislature either abolish the position altogether or give it stricter guidelines and requirements. We believe the position serves valuable functions and allows trained law enforcement officers to spend more time protecting the public, so we would prefer the path to keeping constables around . with some caveats.

Online: https://www.johnsoncitypress.com/

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