State Museum Commission Staff Hiding Records From Public

A rendering of the new Tennessee State Museum building, currently under construction.

The Douglas Henry State Museum Commission is not a very happy place right now. They spent Monday's meeting changing operating procedures to squash public dissent, particularly by commission member Victor Ashe. Ashe has been critical of some museum practices and of the previous executive director.

From Cari Gervin's story in the Nashville Post:

In the past year alone, Ashe's critiques and comments to the press have helped uncover a lengthy string of questionable practices, including:
Additionally, during the commission's search for Riggins-Ezzell's replacement, search committee members circumvented the state's open meetings law by interviewing candidates one on one. Afterwards, in direct violation of the state's open records law, committee members destroyed all information they were given about the candidates (originally lying about it to this reporter) and have continued to refuse to provide copies of the files held by the search firm the commission hired.

All of those stories were written by Gervin, shining a light on what's been a pretty dark corner of state government for a long time.

On Monday, however, the museum showed itself to be truly hostile to the public.

Gervin went to pick up a meeting agenda packet and was informed that she would have to file a written open records request with the Attorney General's office to see one. When she tried to take a picture of one, it was grabbed out of her hand by Mary Skinner, the museum's media relations officer. When House Speaker Beth Harwell, a commission member, gave Gervin her copy, museum staff attempted to take that one, too.

To be clear: A state employee attempted to stop a member of the press from reading a public record that should be made readily available to the public. This is actually against the law.

Tennessee Code Annotated 10-7-503 (a)(2)(B) states: "The custodian of a public record or the custodian's designee shall promptly make available for inspection any public record not specifically exempt from disclosure." The agenda, not exempt from disclosure, was literally sitting on a table. 

But beyond just that, the very first line of the Open Meetings Act creates the presumption of openness for all state meetings: "The general assembly hereby declares it to be the policy of this state that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret."

Gervin has previously asked, in advance of the meetings, to have an agenda packet made available, but the museum staff have refused to provide one. In 2010, the state's own Office of Open Records Counsel issued an opinion stating that as soon as an agenda and materials are created, it should be available to the public.

"It is the opinion of this office that if there is no confidential information within the board packets ... a citizen would have the right to request to either inspect or receive a copy of the packet as soon as it was completed and access should be provided as promptly as possible thereafter, unless a rational good faith basis existed for the packet not being made available promptly."

That's clearly not what is happening here. 

"It looks like it's an intentional attempt to keep information from the public," says Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. "This commission has gone off the deep end."

If the people who are currently running the Museum Commission can't be bothered to give information for a public meeting out to anyone who asks for it, they should quit and find other employment. They work for the people of the state of Tennessee. And if they are acting this way only out of spite for a reporter who has written critical stories about the commission, that's even worse.

Update, Friday, July 14, 9 a.m.:  Executive Director Ashley Howell sent this statement to the Scene and to Museum Commission members: “In the future, the Tennessee State Museum will proactively provide all members of the media copies of agendas and accompanying materials for each Commission meeting in keeping with the practice of most state agencies. The museum’s management values transparency, and we will work diligently to abide by the state’s open records act. We appreciate and value the role of the press, and we welcome coverage of museum business.”

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