By Deborah Fisher
Tennessee Coalition for Open Government
I recently had a conflict with a developer who is building a multimillion-dollar subdivision near my home.
I can now tell you first-hand what callers to Tennessee Coalition for Open Government’s Help Line have been telling me for years: It’s hard for citizens to get information they need in a manner timely enough to make a difference to protect their own property value and interests.
This is true whether you live in the red-hot growth region of Middle Tennessee or a small town or rural county eager for new jobs.
Why are the cards stacked against citizens? For one, developers are not required to disclose everything about their plans. I recall a few years back when Greene County approved a rezoning for a new industrial plant without telling citizens the owner of the plant or even what the plant planned to manufacture — materials for industrial explosives as it turned out. Residents were in the dark and appropriately suspicious and outraged when this rezoning was jammed through.
Even if you’ve got good local government acting in a transparent way, a second problem is that the potential impacts — such as on the environment — are not always readily recognizable or provable.
That’s why oil refineries, viewed as beacons of progress with good-paying jobs, were once commonly built next to neighborhoods. Only decades later did concerns about toxic emissions and explosions take root and buffer zones began to be established.
Our fellow citizens serving on planning commissions and city commissions may have more information than other residents, but they don’t have all the information. And without information, they may not be fully equipped to ask the right questions.
On the other hand, a company who wants something may commission a study and give a rosy view of their plans. But much of the information the governing body is getting is just that: a plan, an estimation of new jobs, an estimation of the success of the project.
Then we have the real tension: Some members of governing bodies are willing to overlook unanswered questions or discount some negatives in favor of benefits brought by the new development.
Maybe it’s a needed landfill. Maybe it’s an industrial plant that will bring jobs and new property taxes. Maybe it’s a new apartment building for a growing number of residents needing housing.
There’s a name for current residents who make a fuss: NIMBYs as in “Not In My Back Yard.” A landfill has to go somewhere, of course.
I doubt anyone keeps a list of all the unjust or even ultimately “wrong” decisions made in developing our communities. I’d like to think we get it right more times than we get it wrong. But getting it right means access to information — both by citizens and by our representatives in government.
We need to get rid of the public records exemptions that allow government to withhold information about economic development deals until after agreements are made and even, in some instances, signed. This hides crucial information until it’s too late for citizens to weigh in.
Along the same lines, we need to get rid of code names for companies who are negotiating land deals with government, economic development incentives and zoning changes. Those companies should be required by law to act transparently when they are interacting with our government.
More squarely on the citizen front, we need to use technology to provide more information to residents affected.
When a property is considered for rezoning, notices are mailed to residents in neighboring houses. But why stop there?
Why can’t citizens sign up for notifications on anything affecting their property?
Why don’t 100 percent of local governments in the state have a website with all meeting agendas, meeting materials and developer materials online so it is easily accessible to citizens? Why aren’t all the planning and zoning regulations online so that citizens can understand their rights?
Why aren’t all public meetings video-recorded with the video available to residents on the government’s website?
Citizen discovery and engagement is the most important issue in making the best decisions.
Do you have ideas for improving access to information about proposed developments? I’d love to hear them. Go to our website, www.tcog.info and drop us an email.
Editor’s note: Deborah Fisher is executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, an organization that has monitored and researched open government in Tennessee since 2003.