The proposal would make classified information deemed ‘sensitive’ by the department’s commissioner and the attorney general. A leading public records advocate says the law is too broad and lacks accountability.
A newly proposed bill seeks to allow records from the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development to be exempt from public records laws if the tourism commissioner and attorney general deem them “sensitive.”
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, is modeled after a similar exemption for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development that was passed in 1988 and would have kept data deemed sensitive secret for five years.
Administration officials say the law is needed to help attract companies to Tennessee, but a leading open data advocate in the state said the proposal is overly broad, lacks real accountability and could damage transparency.
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Lamberth said the bill came directly from the administration of Gov. Bill Lee and the Department of Tourism Development. As House Majority Leader, Lamberth regularly sponsors bills that are part of the Lee administration’s agenda.
“They wanted some of the same options that ECD has when they’re pursuing a major tourism opportunity for the state,” he said. “Some of those preliminary discussions aren’t public when it comes to projects for ED and they wanted the same thing.”
According to Lamberth, he first tried to “make sure” there was an “intermediary there where you didn’t give carte blanche to a department to just do something private.”
“That’s why the attorney general got involved,” he said. “But this comes directly from the governor’s office, which comes directly from tourism.”
Tourism Development spokeswoman Amanda Murphy said the law would help the department conduct business without exposing the relationships of potential investors.
“Like any economic development effort, our industry is highly competitive and relies on confidential data to determine the most effective allocation of taxpayer funds,” she said. “Tourism Development needs the ability to perform due diligence without risking disclosure of sensitive information that could harm our stakeholders’ competitive advantage or business deals.”
Lee spokeswoman Elizabeth Johnson similarly described the bill as a necessary measure to protect contract negotiations.
“Creating greater jobs and opportunities for Tennesseans is one of Governor Lee’s top priorities, and Tennessee has competitively earned a reputation around the world for being one of the best places to do business,” she said. “Tennessee’s tourism industry is the second largest employer in the state, and we continue to experience record visitor spending. Any breach of confidentiality in the midst of negotiations is detrimental to potential economic investment in our state, and this bill will provide the Department of Tourism Development with a policy consistent with the Department of Economic and Community Development.”
But Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the bill was too broad and lacked accountability.
“It’s particularly troubling from a transparency point of view because it gives the commissioner of the department, along with the attorney general, complete freedom to keep confidential anything that he thinks would be sensitive,” she said. “It’s just a very broad and very subjective definition based on what the commissioner thinks is sensitive. If you tried to get a record, there would be no way to challenge it. And since the Attorney General works as a lawyer of the commissioner. , I just don’t see it as an effective backstop at all.”
In addition, Fisher said, the bill was far broader than the Lee administration’s stated needs.
“If that’s what they want to keep confidential — the development of contracts — then all they have to do is write in that exception,” she said. “That would be different. But that’s not the exception. The exception is anything the commissioner wants to keep confidential.”
Under the bill, the proposed exemption would not apply to information already made confidential, which includes trade secrets, marketing information and capital plans within the department.
The bill will be considered in the first session of the subcommittee on Tuesday.
Melissa Brown contributed to this report.
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