The Memphis City Council is scheduled on Tuesday to vote on approving the city-county legislative agenda to take to Nashville.
One item on the list is an effort to add new exceptions to the state’s open records law for economic development projects.
As Memphis collected a slew of new business recruitments and relocations over the past several weeks, city officials and officials with the Greater Memphis Chamber have been especially vocal about media reporting. Specifically, they say media coverage threatens these deals.
With that in mind, here’s a summary of the economic development item on the legislative agenda:
“Tennessee Common Acts (T.C.A.) 4-3-730 provides that records of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (TDECD) are public records. These records are open for inspection unless the Commissioner, with the agreement of the Attorney General, determines that the records should not be disclosed because of their sensitive nature. The statute permits sensitive information to be held in confidence for a period of five (5) years and permits proprietary information—defined as trade secrets, capital plans and marketing information—of economic development projects to be held in confidence indefinitely.
The proposed Act generally follows T.C.A. 4-3-730 and makes comparable provisions applicable to counties, municipalities and development entities that operate as the functional equivalent of a county or municipality for economic development purposes. The proposed Act creates an exception to the Open Records Act for information related to specific economic development projects, but it also requires public disclosure of any proposed contracts and relationship between the economic development prospect and any officer, employee, director or elected official of the county, municipality or development entity.
An alternative amendment would be to allow local entities to seek assistance from TDECD to maintain confidentiality pursuant to TCA 4-3-730.”
A chamber official told the Commercial Appeal the information the protection is being sought for is proprietary information a business competitor might use against them. The language above, however, suggests the new law would create exceptions for proprietary as well as “sensitive” information – whatever “sensitive” is supposed to mean.
If media coverage genuinely threatened these economic development deals, it seems to me the chamber would be more aggressive about saying – with specific detail – that Memphis lost such and such deals because of the media coverage.
If I was a Memphis City Council member, I might have questions Tuesday about why a city mayor who came into office promising transparency and improvement over the previous mayor feels the need to enlist his county counterpart in an effort to change a state law because of potential business recruitments dictating media practices.
(Update: The wording of the legislation defines “sensitive” information as “a file, document or data that is of such sensitive nature that its disclosure or public release would seriously harm the ability of a local industrial development corporation to conclude a PILOT agreement or contract for economic or community development.”
Which appears to be a pretty broad definition. Also, the local elected officials and chamber officials probably will spend most of their time talking about the need for this by focusing on the proprietary information piece. Even though I don’t think anyone in the media was seeking to disclose how Electrolux smelts metal or something like that – just that they’re coming, and what incentives are being offered to induce them to come.)