NASHVILLE — A proposed law prohibiting local governments from destroying certain public records won final House approval Tuesday and is now headed to Gov. Bill Lee for his consideration.
The legislation sponsored by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, passed 93-0 and was spurred by Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor withholding and destroying records that had been requested by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
House members acted on the previously passed Senate Bill 2313, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.
The amended bill prohibits destruction of records subject to a pending open records request and requires government entities to maintain records related to document requests for at least 12 months, with fine of up to $500 per violation.
The legislation addresses Taylor's office 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.
During Tuesday's House consideration, two Nashville Democratic representatives unsuccessfully pushed separate amendments to expand the bill to address their own concerns over legislators' access to state comptroller records on waste, fraud and abuse as well as public access on police body camera footage. Both proposed amendments failed.
The bill easily won approval in Senate committees and then was placed on hold in mid-March, when lawmakers recessed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill amending the state's decades-old Public Records Act applies not just to Hamilton County but local governments statewide. They would be required to maintain documents involving open record requests and an agency's responses to them for at least a year.
Gardenhire brought the original bill this year after a dispute over County Attorney 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 last year put in a records request seeking 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. Taylor later acknowledged to Hamilton County comissioners that the charge "conflicts" with state law.
Records sought by the newspaper "were destroyed some seven months into the debate, causing quite a stir," Carter said earlier this month as he presented the bill in a House committee.
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.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 5:21 p.m. on Tuesday, June 16, to remove a suggestion in the first sentence that the law applies to all public records. As the remainder of the story makes clear, the bill only applies to specific public records.