Live from Music Row Friday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Tennessee Coalition for Open Government’s Executive Director Deborah Fisher, to the newsmaker line to give updates on the McKinsey report open records request and a bill that would put guard rails on the new tri-state pact encouraging economic growth between Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri.
Leahy: We welcome to our newsmaker line, our good friend Deborah Fisher with the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. Good morning, Deborah.
Fisher: Good morning, Michael.
Leahy: Well, there’s more skullduggery going around in the Tennessee General Assembly on a bill that didn’t start out as exactly transparent. Tell us about this bill.
Fisher: Right. There is a bill that would create what is called an interstate compact between Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. And it would be based in the Memphis region. And the bill is for economic development and commerce, but it creates this new agency with eminent domain powers to do what it needs to do for economic development.
But one big problem with it that we saw is that it’s not subject to the open records and open meetings law. So, yeah, that didn’t sound right to us.
Leahy: What’s the status of that bill? Have there been any amendments since we’ve written about this? Laura Baigert has written about this.
And it seems troublesome to me, especially this unbridled access to, or use of, eminent domain that this board would have. It’s called RegionSmart. Doesn’t sound too smart to me. But go ahead, and where are we on that bill?
Fisher: So, you’re right. Laura wrote about it and actually, I’ve heard about it from her. But I did talk to the Senate sponsor yesterday and he said that they are putting an amendment on the bill.
Part of the amendment would make it subject to the open records and open meetings law. So that’s really good. I think Tennessee lawmakers were taking care of Tennessee. I don’t know what’s going to happen in Arkansas and Mississippi, but that’s good for us. So that was one good piece of news that I got yesterday.
Leahy: Should The Tennessee Star take a bow for that open records movement? (Fisher chuckles)
Fisher: Laura does keep on top of things. Yes. (Leahy laughs) She does.
Leahy: Shameless self-promotion for The Tennessee Star on that one. The bill is the state Senate sponsor, Senator Paige Wally from Bolivar. And it’s carried in the House by Representative Kevin Vaughn from Collierville.
They’re all in West Tennessee. We just had, by the way, on our program last hour, the Mayor of Bolivar, Tennessee, Julian McTizic.
And they’ve just attracted Wall Innovations to move their headquarters from New York state to Tennessee. I think it’s a good thing, right? We want these guys to move in.
Fisher: Sure. Yeah. We do. Economic development. That helps. That does help.
Leahy: Deborah Fisher, Crom Carmichael is in-studio. He has a question for you.
Carmichael: Hey, Deborah, you know what’s interesting about this? First, I just have so much respect for the way that our legislature here in Tennessee operates. I think the Republican leadership in both the House and Senate do a great job. And my guess is what they’re trying to do is that Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee in a place where the three states intersect are trying to present themselves to large companies.
And I’m going to guess primarily manufacturers, as to why they should locate their manufacturing plant. If you’re in Mississippi close to Tennessee, that benefits Tennessee. If you’re in Tennessee close to Mississippi and Arkansas, that benefits … so it’s kind of a tri-state thing.
And I see what they’re trying to do, and I am glad that the Senate sponsor is going to add the language of the open records in there. My guess is that the open language records weren’t in there in the first place, because in each case, each state didn’t want what they thought about things to become open records in a third state or a second state.
But I’m glad it’s going to be in there. The eminent domain thing troubles me a bit because I don’t know much about it. But the idea of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee kind of ganging together to try to attract manufacturers to those regions of their states, I think that’s a good thing.
Fisher: Right, and I don’t disagree with that at all. I think that these compacts have been established in other states. You see them more along the East Coast, New Jersey, and Delaware, and they’ve had a legit purpose for coordination between the states and also to get grants to do certain infrastructure.
I think the problem that has arisen on the East Coast, and maybe we can learn from that, is that down the road 5 or 10 years later, when this has been established, they can’t get access to records, and they come to find out that these interstate contracts are not subject to any state public records or open meetings laws.
So I think it’s a good thing, if you’re going to do it, to set it up right and give some thought to it, so that later there’s definitely accountability built into it. I was happy to hear about the amendment.
Leahy: Deborah, can you catch us up on one story we talked about last time you were here. I know there have been some developments in this one. Can you share with us? There was a desire to obtain the public records of a $3 million, the results of a $3 million contract the state of Tennessee signed with the globalist national consulting firm McKinsey.
Paid them $3 million to kind of do an assessment of the COVID response. Have all of those documents been made available, or are there some now that are not available to the public?
Fisher: There are some that are not. But what’s interesting about that is the state, over almost two years, said that those would not be released under this deliberative process and that they were exempt from the public records law.
Well, the two different people – one’s a journalist, one’s a citizen – basically, eventually, after all that time, had to hire lawyers to try to get it. And as soon as those lawyers were hired and a suit was filed in Chancery Court, a great deal of those records were released.
So the state sort of changed its position once they were going to court, which is a little bit disturbing. But there are still some records that are being withheld.
This was the McKinsey report. These records detail, basically, some of the information used in making the decisions on what to do during COVID by the administration. Anyway, some of it’s still under advisement by Chancery Court.
There hasn’t been a ruling yet on that, but we hope to get that soon. But I think the disturbing thing here is that you had to go to court before the state changed its mind about what was confidential and what was not.
Leahy: Yes. And what’s interesting to me is they just sort of invented this deliberative process privilege. To me, it seems they just invented it out of thin air.
I didn’t see any statutory or constitutional precedent for it. They kind of made it up. And as you say, once it was challenged in court, for the most part, they caved. Do I have that right?
Fisher: Yes, they did. They’re still hanging on to the fact that the deliberative process covers something that they’re trying to now … the problem is, they aren’t really clear what exactly it covers. And it covers basically what they said in court, which is amazing, and that any documents that became public, that would allow the public to second-guess the administration’s decision, should be private.
Leahy: That’s a bad precedent, isn’t it?
Fisher: Right. They said the deliberative process is to prevent Monday-morning quarterbacking. (Leahy laughs) I mean, those are their words, not mine.
Leahy: Oh, my goodness.
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For more information on the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government visit them on the Web at Tcog.info.
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Deborah Fisher” by Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.