This story was updated at 5:29 p.m. with more information.
In light of what one Hamilton County commissioner called a "dust-up" in the media, commissioners publicly pressured county attorney Rheubin Taylor into admitting county policy conflicted with state law in a recent battle over public records.
During their regular business meeting Wednesday morning, several commissioners asked Taylor to address a recent Chattanooga Times Free Press report that details the destruction of most records involved in an August records request submitted by the paper.
After commissioners had the attorney clarify the role of the Public Records Commission, a separate body that granted attorneys rights to destroy the records two months after the request was made, District 2 Commissioner Chip Baker asked Taylor to address whether the initial response to the request for inspection of the records was above board.
"The problem, particularly in this situation but in other situations, is when someone has to inspect records which have to be, first of all, compiled, reviewed, there may be some redaction of those records before we can release them to someone else," Taylor said, justifying the office's decision to quote the newspaper a charge of more than $700 to inspect records which, under state law, are free to inspect. "Our policy is, as is some other municipalities' policy, that we charge after the first hour for the time required."
Taylor admitted the county's charge went against state records law when Baker later narrowed his question, asking if "we do conflict with state law?"
"We conflict, yes," Taylor said of the county's policy to charge for records inspection. "There are some counties who don't interpret it or practice it as the statute may be written."
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If you filed an open records request with the county between Aug. 1, 2018 - Aug. 1 2019, we want to hear from you. Please send your request and correspondence with the attorney's office to firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us at (423)757-6416.
Taylor continued to argue over the issue of the county destroying the requested records, saying the "public records weren't gone."
He told commissioners no records were deleted when the records commission voted in October to allow Taylor's office to implement a new policy of destroying public records requests and responses after 30 days, despite the fact that both the requests and written responses to them are records. An estimated 1,500 pages of records had been requested by the paper in August, but were not provided as the paper continued to fight Taylor and other county officials over the proposed charges.
Despite nearly four months of regular correspondence after the records apparently had been destroyed, the paper was not made aware of the destruction until late January when the county provided a 268-page sample of requested records, explaining the rest were destroyed.
Commissioners asked representatives of the newspaper to answer some questions they had at the meeting.
Baker told the representatives to "keep up the good fight."
Taylor called an attorney-client meeting immediately after the commission meeting.
In other business:
Earlier in the meeting, the commission voted to approve a resolution brought by District 3 Commissioner Greg Martin to end the rollover of controversial travel and discretionary funds.The rule will require that unspent travel funds distributed to each district go back into the county's general fund at the end of each fiscal year, matching the standard of all other equivalent funds in the county government.
"Our travel expenses and our meeting services, etc., what we don't use each year would just go back, like every other constitutional office, to the general fund," Martin said last week. "Every other constitutional office in county government, when they don't use those particular travel funds, they go back in the general fund. I just think that would be a good thing for the county commission to do."
Martin's resolution comes after several commissioners made controversial donations in the summer and fall, resurfacing old concerns about the propriety of the funds and previous failed attempts to end the rollover of funds.
Every commissioner but District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey, who had said previously that he would not support any policy to tighten the rules on the funds, voted in favor of the resolution.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.
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