NASHVILLE — The Hamilton County Attorney's Office and local governments statewide would be required to maintain documents involving open record requests and an agency's responses to them for at least a year under a bill to amend Tennessee's Public Records Act.
The Tennessee House State Committee this past week approved the latest amendment to House Bill 2578. It was brought by sponsor Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, who then passed the bill by voice vote. It now goes to the Calendar and Rules Committee, where it will be scheduled for floor action.
As amended, the bill would require local governments to retain copies of public records requests for a year.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, brought the original bill this year after a blowup over County Attorney Rheubin Taylor's office's handling of a Public Records Act request made by the Times Free Press in 2019. The House bill was originally sponsored by Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, and then taken up later by Carter.
After months of wrangling between the Times Free Press and Taylor's office over records, the newspaper put in another records request last year. It sought to learn how many public requests from people, businesses and other entities had been made over the past 12 months — and if or when Taylor's office had responded.
As the Times Free Press sought to negotiate over a period of months with Taylor's office on his proposed charges for the public documents, an attorney in Taylor's office, Dana Beltramo, went to the county's Public Records Commission. She requested and won approval of a new policy allowing Taylor to destroy documents related to Open Records Act requests after 30 days.
Taylor's office didn't reveal that to the Times Free Press until January.
Records sought by the newspaper "were destroyed some seven months into the debate, causing quite a stir," Carter said.
County Public Records Commission members later said they had been unaware of the continuing wrangling between the newspaper and Taylor's office.
As amended, the bill says "a governmental entity shall not authorize the destruction of public records subject to disclosure under this part if the governmental entity knows the records are subject to a pending public record request submitted to the governmental entity."
Other provisions say that before authorizing destruction of such records, a governmental entity shall contact the public record request coordinator to ensure the records are not subject to any pending public record requests submitted to the agency.
A government that authorizes the destruction of public records may be fined up to $500 by a court.
A government would not be liable for authorizing destruction of public records if the agency contacted the respective records custodian and received notice from the records custodian that the records were not subject to a pending public record request. But the bill states it "does not absolve a public official from criminal liability for intentionally or knowingly altering or destroying a public record in violation of § 39-16- 504."
The language replaces an amendment places on the bill last month by Carter, which among other things would have left the county's 30-day destruction policy in place.
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, which advocates for government transparency and to which the Times Free Press belongs, last month voiced concerns about allowing a 30-day retention policy among other issues.
Carter and Gardenhire later discussed that version and Carter came back Thursday with a new Gardenhire amendment toughening the requirements.
Fisher callied the 12-month minimum preservation requirement for local governments "pretty modest."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.