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Jake Old: It hurts to see Sevier County people subjected to government secrecy

Jake Old • Mar 16, 2017 at 10:59 AM

Elected and appointed government officials at every level, whether at a local or national level, serve the public, and they should do so transparently. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.  

This week is Sunshine Week, celebrating transparency in our government, particularly when it comes to open meetings and open records. 

A few years before I started working in Lebanon, I covered municipal government in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Later, I covered local government in Spring Hill and Thompson’s Station. I still occasionally cover city meetings here, when needed. 

In that time, I’ve been fortunate to not run into many hurdles with regards to open records or meetings. 

However, transparency in government has been a big issue in Sevier County, a place I once called home, in the aftermath of the wildfires that ravaged Gatlinburg late last year. 

Specifically, officials do not want the public to know virtually any information related to the fires. Sevier County District Attorney Jimmy Dunn preemptively denied any and all requests for public records about the fires, deeming that information to be confidentially related to an ongoing criminal investigation. 

Two teenagers were charged in the wildfires late last year, and while there certainly may be some information that could compromise the case if it were to be made pubic, I think making the blanket statement that no information can be released is a bridge too far. 

The people who live or work in Sevier County, and even those who just visit as tourists, have a right to know any specific issues with the way their local officials responded to the crisis. If this happened while I was living in Sevierville, I would be furious, and in speaking to people I still keep in touch with in that area, I would not be alone. 

That isn’t to say that there should be some sort of witch hunt, or that public officials should be shamed for making mistakes, but people should know where the mistakes were made, and they should be able to see how their local government and emergency agencies are going to address those issues and make sure they are better equipped for another crisis.

In February, The Lebanon Democrat ran a guest editorial by Deborah Fisher of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government in which she made many of the same points I have made in this column. That same editorial was published in newspapers across the state. 

Fisher also brought up the fact that it is odd that Dunn issued a gag order to every local agency — including several for which he has no affiliation — and that it is questionable whether he should have the authority to deny requests before they actually exist. 

I know my former colleagues at The Mountain Press, the daily newspaper in Sevier County, are going to keep pushing for that information, even though it will likely be in vain for some time. 

That’s something I hope people can count on us journalists to do in these situations, keep pressure on public officials and make sure the issues do not go away.  

Jake Old is a staff writer for The Democrat. Email him at jold@lebanondemocrat.com and follow him on Twitter @wilsonnewsroom.

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