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Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor speaks during a county commission meeting in the commission assembly room at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

It took until the announcement portion of the Hamilton County Commission meeting Wednesday for anyone to address the elephant in the chamber.

Wait, strike that. For someone to address the "deleted" elephant in the room.

OK, unless you still have your eyes covered from that Super Bowl halftime show, you are aware that the Times Free Press requested public records, and most of the records that were requested were destroyed.

Yes. Deleted. As in here one minute, gone the next.

Now, to be fair, there is a committee that meets a couple of times a year to decide whether to destroy old records. County Clerk Bill Knowles is part of that group, because the rules dictate that the county clerk be on the Hamilton County Public Records Commission.

Here's what I know about Bill Knowles: I'd trust him to watch my children. He is such an old-school Southern gentleman the local Lion's Club in Mayberry with Andy, Floyd the Barber and Barney would admire his decency and character. If you find someone with a problem with Bill Knowles, well, that's a them problem.

And Bill said nothing seemed out of the ordinary or even memorable when that public records commission met last October and approved the deletion of the emailed requests from the newspaper's Sarah Grace Taylor, who was called before the commission Wednesday to answer some questions from commissioners.

As for my conversation with Knowles, I believe him when he says it felt like business as usual. And therein lies an issue.

As for County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, his efforts to deflect and now delete things the public has every right to has become a pattern, as the Free Press editorial page detailed earlier this week.

But as bad as destroying records was, the verbal dancing from the dais Wednesday may have been worse.

Kudos to County Commissioner Greg Martin for asking Rheubin Taylor directly about the details of what happened and why. The attorney and his staff most assuredly want this embarrassment to disappear. You know, disappear like those deleted emails.

After Martin's continued prodding, Rheubin Taylor offered more rope-a-dope than mea culpas. He tried to steer the dialogue away from failure to follow the law.

We would be a lot better off if attorney Taylor had offered some sort of reasoning as to why it happened.

This much I do know: If any government official is not prepared to act openly and with transparency, then their value as a public service must be scrutinized.

Think of it this way: If the people in every job of county government, be they the county mayor or the security guard at the county courthouse, truly work for you and me and the rest of the taxpayers, then they should be willing to share any public record or answer any reasonable question.

"The government owes transparency to the people," County Mayor Jim Coppinger said after the meeting. "When these kinds of things happen, intent really does not matter as much as the event."

Coppinger is right. If you are a government employee, you are either working to improve transparency or you are part of the problem. One or the other. End of story.

Because sometimes it's just that simple.

And speaking of simple, we'll give the last word to Coppinger on the subject.

"It's embarrassing," he said.

And that may be the one thing we all agreed on Wednesday.

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Jay Greeson

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com.

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