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Staff File Photo by Robin Rudd / Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, left, placed a moratorium on the destruction of public records in February after an October 2019 policy made by the Hamilton County Attorney's Office led by Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, right, allowed public record requests and responses to be destroyed after 30 days.

If open records laws don't mean what they say, if they have no teeth, if they're routinely disregarded by public officials, they're not much good.

Such laws, among other things, help keep governments from operating in secret, from alleging things that are not true and from spending money that is not accounted for.

The Tennessee state Senate put some teeth in the state's open records law Thursday, passing a measure — with no opposition — that prohibits the destruction of records subject to pending open records requests and requires governments to retain records related to such requests for at least 12 months.

The measure grew out of a Hamilton County government denial of a request by the Times Free Press for records it apparently was entitled to about the number of public requests for open records that had been made. Subsequently, charges to view the records were requested from the newspaper in an apparent violation of state law, and later the records that were requested were reported to have been destroyed.

If public records laws are flouted so egregiously when requested by an entity that openly serves the public, it's chilling to imagine how requests by an average citizen might be handled.

The measure — introduced by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga — goes Monday to the House floor, where it is sponsored by state Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah.

It carries a $500 fine per offense and requires records must be kept 12 months.

The newspaper originally requested records in 2018 and 2019, but they went unfulfilled. In late 2019, the county established a policy that allowed the Hamilton County Attorney's Office to destroy public records requests and responses to them after 30 days. After the newspaper published details of the destruction of about 1,500 records it had requested in February, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger placed a moratorium on records destruction.

The moratorium still stands, and the county said it had been able to recover 660 pages of the 1,500 that were reportedly destroyed. But once turned over, only 230 pages of the 660 were responsive to the requests the newspaper made.

It is our hope the House quickly approves the bill and it becomes law. If governments can't be responsive even to the number of requests they get for open records, how can the public expect they will be forthcoming on matters facing the entire county? We would like to believe this measure might serve as a prod.

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