A citizen has accused Hamilton County of "stonewalling" him from public records, adding to scrutiny and public questioning of the embattled county attorney's office.
Several commissioners questioned County Attorney Rheubin Taylor during their regular public meeting Wednesday, expressing concern about an accusation by a man who claims the county had not legally responded to a recent records request.
An email thread from former Bradley County Commissioner Dan Rawls shows that Rawls filed an open records request on Feb. 14 for a year's worth of email, chat, phone and web browser histories of seven county employees, including Mayor Jim Coppinger, attorney Taylor, Property Assessor Marty Haynes and several of Haynes' staff members.
Records Coordinator Dana Beltramo initially told Rawls that he would receive on or before Feb. 26 all records except those in the assessor's office, which she said would take longer to get. Two days later, she told Rawls that his request was too broad.
"After more carefully reviewing your request, I have realized that your request is quite broad and will require clarification in order to proceed. The records you appear to have requested will require production, review and redaction, for which an up-front charge will be assessed pursuant to the Hamilton County General Government Open Records policy and the Tennessee Open Records Act. Therefore, please provide clarification as to exactly what records you wish to receive, as terms such as 'email,' even where limited by date, are simply too broad and vague to permit me to determine with specificity what records should be produced," Beltramo wrote. "Once I have a better idea of what specific records you're requesting, I will be able to determine what, if any cost, will be associated with producing those records, and will apprise you accordingly."
Rawls responded to Beltramo saying he would not narrow his request and expected them all to be fulfilled.
"They're skating around all of it. It's a really simple request," Rawls told the Times Free Press. "There's no ambiguity of what I'm asking for. We have a right to it. The tax payers payed for those. There is nothing in my request that is outside of the scope of public records law in Tennessee."
He added that he would "absolutely not" be amending his request.
Rawls sent an email to the Times Free Press, Coppinger, Beltramo, Taylor and all nine Hamilton County commissioners on Monday, asserting that the lack of records fulfillment is a cover-up to aid Haynes, who is in a contentious battle for re-election during next week's Republican primary.
"A reliable source reported Friday an associate in the Hamilton County Mayor's office instructed individuals not to comply with open records requests until after the election," Rawls wrote. "This is a gross violation of the open records request and could be criminal if any information is destroyed."
Coppinger did not address the complaint during the meeting and declined to comment later. Haynes did not respond to a phone call Wednesday night.
The assertions of political interference and recent scrutiny of the office for unlawfully charging for and later destroying public records requested in August by the Times Free Press prompted a line of questioning by several commissioners at Wednesday's meeting.
"There were some pretty big accusations in those emails, and that was concerning to me," said District 7 Commissioner Sabrena Smedley. She asked Taylor if the county was following state law.
Taylor told the commissioners that the records were being handled without political bias and that the original response, delivered one business day after the request, fulfills state statute, which requires a response within seven business days but does not specify a time frame for records production.
"The information is being accumulated for the request and the requester has been advised of what he needs to do," Taylor added. "That's in the process."
Other commissioners used the opportunity to express their concern over the behavior of the county attorney's office and encouraged Taylor to be diligent in responses to records requests.
"It's a topic that's been highly publicized lately and I would hope, and would like to encourage, that we are as transparent and expedient with all of these requests as we could possibly be," District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe said.
"We are making an effort on our part to do what we can as expeditiously as possible," Taylor added.
According to Rawls, the county is displaying a continued behavior of blocking public information.
"We were hoping county leadership, including county attorneys, were honorable and trustworthy given recent issues," Rawls wrote. "It appears this is not the case and [county officials] are working to thwart the law and hide information from the public."
Taylor declined to comment further after the meeting.
The Times Free Press is still seeking records responsive to the August request.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.