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Under public pressure from the Hamilton County Commission and a proposed bill from members of the Tennessee Legislature, county officials stalled a controversial records destruction policy Friday, promising more transparent rules in the county general government.

Less than a week after a report from the Times Free Press detailed the October establishment of a policy allowing the Hamilton County Attorney's Office to destroy public record requests and responses to them after 30 days, which resulted in the destruction of an unknown number of records requested by the paper two months earlier, the destruction authorization has been paused by the county mayor.

"I believe in transparency and I support the public knowing, obviously, and anything we can do to make public documentation available, we're going to do it," Mayor Jim Coppinger said. "We are working to figure out how exactly we can be more involved and form better policy to support those goals."

After a meeting involving representatives of the paper, the county mayor's office and county attorney's office, plus outside legal counsel and information technology specialists representing the newspaper, to discuss the retrieval of destroyed records, future policy changes and implications of previous records law violations, a memo was sent to the records commission responsible for the policy suspending it.

"After much discussion and deliberation, the County Mayor has determined that this policy is not optimal for Hamilton County government, and he is instructing County departments to not destroy public records requests and the responses thereto after thirty calendar days, but to retain such requests and responses until further study and consideration of the appropriate retention period for such requests," Assistant Administrator of Finance Lee Brouner wrote in an email Friday. "Furthermore, the County Mayor would like to request that the Public Records Commission suspend the implementation of this resolution at least until such time as the Public Records Commission can meet and reconsider the resolution."

The policy was established Oct. 2 at the request of Hamilton County Attorney and Records Coordinator Dana Beltramo by the county public records commission in an apparent attempt to destroy records requested by the paper. While the request for inspection was made nearly two months earlier on Aug. 5, the records had not been compiled or provided by the office due to an ongoing battle between the paper and office over the attorney requiring a $717 fee be paid to cover aggregating costs, despite state law prohibiting charges on inspection requests.

Now, Coppinger is working to improve the county's overall records policy.

"What we did today was basically try to prevent the confusion of mistakes that have happened from happening again," the mayor said. "And what we plan on doing in the future is being able to put in a more stringent policy as well as use some better technology to be able to, again, make sure that we don't have any more of these misunderstandings or actions like what happened with this [request]."

After being made aware that some records responsive to the request had been destroyed almost four months before, the paper published a story about the records destruction, spurring state legislatures from the area to file a bill intended to quell future records issues and prompting concern on the local legislative body, as well.

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District 3 Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Martin speaks during a County Commission meeting in the County Commission assembly room at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

"I think that the legal committee should be looking at, and the county commission will be looking at, public records and how the attorney handles them going forward," District 3 Commissioner Greg Martin said Friday, having already questioned the county attorney during a public commission meeting earlier in the week. "The public expects and demands and deserves transparency in public records. There should never be a question about it, so the commission has an obligation to address that, even though they are not the ones who destroyed records."

While no member of the commission has committed to policy, most commissioners told the paper Friday that the matter will be considered and possibly regulated in the future.

"I think it would be appropriate to bring this up in legal committee and study what options we have available to better protect public records and the requests thereof," District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe, who is chairman of the legal committee, said.

While the mayor and commission have both stated there is an issue in records policy and practice in the county that led to the charges and destruction of records, the county attorney's office has consistently defended the inspection charge as well as the destruction of requests and correspondence.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or at staylor@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe speaks during a meeting of the Hamilton County Commission at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. / Staff file photo

 

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