I recently had a dispute with a developer who is building a multi-million dollar subdivision near my home.

I can now tell you firsthand what callers to the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government hotline have been telling me for years: It’s hard for citizens to get the information they need fast enough to make a difference to protect the value of their own property and interests.

This is true whether you live in the growing Middle Tennessee region or in a small town or rural county hungry for new jobs.

Why are the cards against the citizens? For one thing, developers aren’t required to disclose everything about their plans. I remember a few years ago when Greene County approved a rezoning for a new industrial plant without telling the citizens the owner of the plant or even what the plant planned to manufacture – materials for industrial explosives at the end of the day. Residents were left in the dark and rightly suspicious and outraged when this rezoning was blocked.

Even if you have good local government acting transparently, a second problem is that potential impacts – such as on the environment – ​​are not always easily recognizable or provable.

This is why oil refineries, considered beacons of progress with well-paying jobs, were once often built next to neighborhoods. It was not until decades later that concerns about toxic emissions and explosions took hold and buffer zones began to be established.

Our fellow citizens who sit on planning commissions and municipal commissions may have more information than other citizens, but they do not everything information. And without information, they may not be fully equipped to ask the right questions.

On the other hand, a company that wants something can order a study and give a positive view of its projects. But most of the information the governing body gets is just that: a plan, an estimate of new jobs, an estimate of the success of the project.

Then we have the real tension: some members of the governing bodies are willing to ignore unanswered questions or discount certain negative aspects in favor of the benefits brought by the new development.

It may be a necessary discharge. It may be an industrial plant that will create jobs and new property taxes. Perhaps this is a new apartment building for a growing number of residents in need of accommodation.

There is a name for the current residents who are making a fuss: the NIMBYs as in “Not In My Back Yard”. A dump has to go somewhere, of course.

I doubt anyone keeps a list of all the unfair or even ultimately “wrong” decisions made in the development of our communities. I like to think that we succeed more often than we fail. But getting it right means access to information, both by citizens and by our representatives in government.

We need to get rid of public records exemptions that allow the government to withhold information about economic development agreements until the agreements are finalized and even, in some cases, signed. This hides crucial information until it is too late for citizens to intervene.

Along the same lines, we need to get rid of code names for companies negotiating government land deals, economic development incentives, and zoning changes. These companies should be required by law to act transparently when interacting with our government.

More squarely on the citizen front, we need to use technology to provide more information to concerned residents.

When a property is considered for rezoning, notices are mailed to residents of neighboring homes. But why stop there?

Why can’t citizens sign up to receive notifications on anything affecting their property?

Why don’t 100% of local governments in the state have a website with all meeting agendas, meeting documents, and development documents online so it’s easily accessible to citizens? Why aren’t all planning and zoning regulations online so citizens understand their rights?

Why aren’t all public meetings videotaped with the video available to residents on the government website?

Citizen discovery and engagement are the most important issues for making the best decisions.

Do you have any ideas for improving access to information on proposed developments? I would like to hear them. Go to our website, www.tcog.info and email us.

Deborah Fisher is executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, an organization that has been monitoring and studying open government in Tennessee since 2003.

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