The Tennessee Senate voted without opposition Thursday to approve a bill prohibiting the destruction of requested public records, legislation spurred by the Hamilton County attorney withholding and destroying records requested by the Times Free Press.
Introduced by Chattanooga Sen. Todd Gardenhire in February, the bill prohibits the destruction of records subject to a pending open records request and requires government entities to maintain records related to records requests for at least 12 months, with up to a $500 fine per offense. The legislation addresses a Times Free Press report on the county denying records requested by the paper that were apparently subject to open records provisions of state law, later requesting charges to inspect the records in an apparent violation of state law, and ultimately destroying records responsive with the request.
Gardenhire's original bill would have made it a criminal misdemeanor for local officials to destroy public records that have been formally requested by individuals, businesses or other entities with up to a $500 fine per occurrence. The bill easily won approval in Senate committees but was placed on hold in mid-March, when lawmakers recessed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In late May, the House amended the bill to remove the misdemeanor offense and a provision that would have required records to be stored for five years, per a request made by Tennessee Open Records Counsel Lee Pope.
The amended version passed the Senate on Thursday with 30 yes votes and no opposition, after a pep talk by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson.
"There are a number of members in this chamber who have fought for open records and fought for transparency in government, but perhaps none of us have championed the cause more than Sen. Gardenhire," Watson said. "And this is just an extension of the work that he's been doing since he was elected ... It's a good piece of legislation. It shows the public that we pull back the curtain when they ask, and when they don't ask."
Sponsored by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, the bill is scheduled to go to the House floor on Monday, after clearing committee as amended.
Status of 'destroyed' records
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger placed a moratorium on records destruction back in February, less than a week after the newspaper detailed the destruction of about 1,500 pages of requested records, overriding 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.
As of Thursday, Coppinger said, the order is still in place.
In the weeks after the introduction of the bill and moratorium, the county provided 660 of the 1,500 pages of records responsive to the Times Free Press's request for documents related to other requests filed with the attorney's office from August 2018-2019. Records Coordinator Dana Beltramo said the records were those which had been destroyed, but were later recovered in an email.
Of the 660 pages, just 230 were responsive to the request, with two dozen duplicated pages and more than 400 pages of documents either not within the time frame or subject matter of the request.
Through documents obtained by the newspaper from citizens who filed the requests in question, the Times Free Press found that at least eight requests existed within the requested time frame and were not included. Of the 84 requests provided, only 17 included any of the surrounding documents, also requested by the paper.
In a log of requests obtained by the Times Free Press, Beltramo notes the existence of 96 requests within the time frame.
Beltramo told the Times Free Press upon partially fulfilling the requests that some were missing because they were delivered by mail or in person, and were therefore permanently destroyed when the records were deleted in October. Records obtained through citizens show a majority of the missing requests and responses were submitted via email.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.