"I admit slowing the process down."
With those words, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond let the county residents who pay his salary know his approach to government transparency.
Under Hammond, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department has gotten a well-earned reputation as being one of the least responsive government agencies in the state to requests for public records. And now we know why. Hammond is standing in the way of being held accountable.
According to state law, "all documents ... made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any governmental agency" are public records. A government agency in Tennessee is required by law to make those records available within seven days or provide the requestor a written explanation of how long it will take to produce the request.
So why then does it take weeks, sometimes months, to get documents from the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department?
In a Times Free Press editorial board meeting on Thursday, Hammond responded to that question by admitting to slow-walking the process of furnishing public records.
"If you're asking me, 'have I slowed the pace down?' Absolutely," Hammond said.
In one circumstance, a Times Free Press reporter requested a copy of the employee manual that Sheriff's Department employees must follow. That request was made on July 9. As of today, that document has still not been provided to the requestor. In another case, the Sheriff's Department has been unwilling to comply with requests for arrest reports - one of the most commonly requested of all public records.
In a particularly egregious example of skirting state public records laws, a Times Free Press reporter requested a personnel file on July 12 and was not allowed to review it until August 24. A reporter for Chattanoogan.com requested the same file on July 18 and was given access to the file the same day.
It would be easy for Hammond to pass the buck and claim that one of his underlings was responsible for the Sheriff Department's poor history of compliance with public records requests, but Hammond admitted, "I've been guilty of not doing everything I could [to comply with public records laws]."
Hammond told journalists at the Times Free Press, "Every time your lawyers have got with ours, I think ya'll have won nine out of ten of the meetings." But it shouldn't come to that.
Newspapers are fortunate to have attorneys to call when arrogant tyrants like Hammond stand in the way of state law and deny access to public records. Concerned citizens don't have that luxury and often never receive the records they request.
When asked why he and his department consistently made a mockery of state public records laws, Hammond's response was chilling. "You're following the letter of the law," said Hammond. "I prefer the spirit of the law."
A lot of the people are sitting in Hamilton County jail today because they violated the letter of the law. Those inmates would likely be shocked to learn that the County's sheriff doesn't believe the letter of the law applies to him.
Hammond's condescending "you'll get them when I want you to see them" outlook on public records may have worked in the Wild West or in a dictatorship, but it has no place in modern government. By failing to respond quickly and thoroughly to public records requests, Jim Hammond makes Hamilton County residents wonder what he has to hide.