How transparent are Tennessee's counties? Marion, Meigs and Cannon fail our test

How transparent are Tennessee's counties? Marion, Meigs and Cannon fail our test

April 28th, 2013 in Opinion Free Press
Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

How well do county governments in our part of Tennessee comply with state open records law?

To answer that question, the Free Press opinion page filed open records requests with the 18 Tennessee counties within the Times Free Press circulation area. Each of the counties received the same request on the same day.

Overall, 14 of the 18 counties complied with state open records laws. Four counties, - Cannon, Marion, Meigs and Polk - failed to grant our request to review public records even after repeated calls and emails.

We performed our open records experiment by submitting a state open records form requesting to review statements associated with the purchasing cards - credit, debit and fuel cards - used by the mayor and sheriff of each county between July 1, 2012, and Jan. 31, 2013. Some counties, such as Cumberland and Loudon, use a reimbursement system rather than purchasing cards in order to pay for travel, conference fees and other business-related expenses incurred by their mayors and sheriffs. In those cases, the Free Press asked to see the reimbursement documents.

Purchasing card statements (which generally look just like any other credit card billing statement) and reimbursement information are common documents that are generally carefully maintained and easily available from a county's finance, budget or accounting office. Complying with a resident's requests to review purchasing card or reimbursement documents generally consists of little more than pulling a folder out of a filing cabinet and sitting the folder on a table. They are among the simplest public records for county and municipal governments to provide to citizens.

For enterprising reporters, citizen watchdogs and concerned residents, purchasing cards and, to a lesser degree, reimbursement records, provide a treasure trove of information about how government officials spend tax dollars. Inappropriate uses of public funds such as excessive travel, luxurious meals, expensive office parties and unjustified personal spending are often uncovered by reviewing purchasing card statements and reimbursement documents.

The Free Press' goal in submitting the request for public records, however, wasn't to uncover wrongdoing or wasteful spending. We simply wanted to know if the counties in our region are committed to government transparency.

Hamilton, Bradley, Franklin and Sequatchie counties responded quickly to our request and complied fully with state open records laws. Bledsoe, Cumberland, Grundy, Loudon, McMinn, Monroe, Rhea, Roane and Warren counties also provided access to the requested documents in a reasonable fashion.

The Free Press eventually viewed the purchasing card statements requested from Coffee County, although the county was slow in allowing us to see the documents, seemingly attempting to stall our efforts on several occasions.

The following counties, however, never allowed us access to the public documents requested:

• Cannon County - Twice we made an appointment to look through the county's reimbursement claims, twice the county canceled the appointment.

• Polk County - The county was unresponsive to our request to review their reimbursement paperwork, and County Attorney Jimmy Logan failed to return several calls.

• Marion County - Our request to review Marion County's documents was met with a number of unreturned emails and some phone tag that never resulted in an appointment to view the records.

• Meigs County - The county did not respond to our request for records and failed to return multiple follow-up emails and phone calls.

According to state law, governments are legally required to respond to open records requests within seven business days. The four non-compliant counties had not responded after two months, despite our numerous attempts to reach out and make providing the documents as easy as possible.

The Free Press applauds the overwhelming number of counties in our area that responded quickly and helpfully to requests to make public records available to citizens.

Cannon, Polk, Marion and Meigs counties should learn from their failures to comply with state open records laws, taking this opportunity to correct their shortcomings and become more responsive and accountable to the citizens they serve.