From school-bus security footage to Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) meetings, several new bills filed at the state and federal level aim to make the government more open and transparent.
School Bus Footage
A Kindergarten student in Lewisburg, Tennessee, told her mother she wasn't supposed to talk about a "secret tickling game" she played on the bus with a "special friend." The child said she had to wipe off her mouth after the friend kissed her. All of this is according to a report from the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (TCOG).
The mother, Brooke Wilkerson, went to school and to law enforcement officials. The bus driver was fired. But Wilkerson wanted to see the bus security film herself. Her request was denied thanks to a federal law.
The Family Education and Privacy Rights Act (FERPA) was created to keep students' education records private, "but it's misunderstood and misused to withhold records even from parents," said TCOG executive director Deborah Fisher.
Wilkerson hired a lawyer and was allowed to see the footage. But the 2,000 files given to her were unorganized and incomplete. But she did see chaos, students fighting and rolling on the floor, and her daughter, at the back of the bus where her special friend told her to sit. Wilkerson pulled her daughter from the school.
A new bill would require school boards to allow a parent to view photos or video footage taken from school-bus security cameras.
TVA Open Meetings
Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) and Congressman Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville) are co-sponsors of a bill to shed more light on TVA meetings.
The Tennessee Valley Authority Transparency Act would require the TVA to hold their meetings in public, give public notice of those meetings, and make minutes and summaries of those meeting available to the public.
The TVA is required by Congress to have four meetings each year. But there is no law that requires those meetings to be public.
"The TVA board chooses which meetings it allows the public to attend as well as whether it will provide any minutes or summaries of meetings to the public," said Fisher. "Despite being a government body created by Congress, and its members confirmed by the U.S. Senate, there is no requirement that deliberations of its full board or subcommittees be open to the public."
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) has long criticized TVA's lack of transparency, especially blocking the public from meetings. Last month, the group launched www.notpublicpower.org, a website "to document how TVA is taking the public out of public power," said SACE executive director, Dr. Stephen Smith.
State lawmakers began work last summer to review the 539 exemptions to the state's Open Records Act. While that work continues, a new bill would require any new exemptions to get extra vetting.
If approved, any new bills that contain exceptions to the Open Records Act would first have to be reviewed by the House Government Operations Committee for an up, down, or neutral vote before it carried through the regular legislative process.