A grassroots residents group opposing the annexation of their neighborhoods by the City of Chattanooga filed a lawsuit in Chancery Court today after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request failed to produce a single document from the City.
In the filing, the Hamilton County Residents Against Annexation (HCRAA) seeks a “show cause hearing” on the issue on Sept. 18. The purpose of the hearing would be for the City to either produce the requested documents or explain why they do not have produce the documents.
After the suit was filed today in Chancery Court, Chancellor Frank Brown granted the show cause request, setting a hearing for 9:30 a.m. next Friday.
“If the City of Chattanooga is saying that the only documents of any kind that exist on one of the most significant issues in a decade are what are listed on their website, it simply is not credible. It totally lacks any sense of credibility, which should raise concerns of Council members and all citizens of Chattanooga,” said Kyle Holden, president of HCRAA. “If the only information that City Council members have is what is posted on the City’s website, it’s hard to imagine how they could make an informed decision unless they are simply following whatever the mayor says.”
Mr. Holden said the HCRAA filed two Open Records requests with the City, one on Aug. 28 and an amended version on Aug. 31. The Tennessee Public Records Act says the city has seven business days after receipt of a FOIA request to respond. In an e-mail from City Records officer Marie Chinery dated Aug. 31 at 4:54 p.m., Ms. Chinery replied to the first request that, “Mr. Holden, thank you for your inquiry. Below is the web link that provides all the information for your review. If you have further questions, please contact our city attorney.” It is based on that response that today’s lawsuit was filed.
Gary Starnes, legal counsel for HRCAA, said that it is unfortunate that the City is moving forward with public meetings next week while refusing to give citizens access to information that would be of importance at the meetings.
“How fair is a public hearing when reasonable citizens who do not want their taxes doubled do not have the information at their disposal to quiz their future Council representatives?” Starnes asked. “You have to wonder if the Council members themselves believe they have the proper information. The city has had years to prepare for annexation, yet they say they have virtually no information that would reflect any planning whatsoever.”
Holden pointed out that the city’s plan calls for a study to be done after annexation to determine what public safety needs are needed. With years to plan, why hasn’t the city determined how it would provide fire and police protection to the annexed areas?
“The truth of the matter is that, if you talk to police officers, that the city can’t cover the geography it has now, is going to face deeper shortages of officers and can’t have new, fully trained officers on the street until 2011 at the earliest,” said Holden. “However, as we saw in the paper last Saturday, the city has attempted to muzzle police officers from expressing any questions regarding annexation. Again, it is clear that the last thing Council members want is full disclosure as it relates to annexation.”
See tomorrow’s Times Free Press for more details.