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Pam Sohn, Times opinion writer and editor, and Clint Cooper, Free Press writer and editor. Staff photo by Tim Barber

Clint Cooper: Hamilton County's brazen disregard for transparency

[Keep scrolling for Pam Sohn's take on the issue]

The action just didn't pass the smell test.

In the midst of a recent six-month effort by the Times Free Press to access specific public records from Hamilton County, the county destroyed the records.

Whether or not the county was hiding anything — and we'll never know — the county destroyed the evidence.

Oh, the powers that be got permission from the Hamilton County Public Records Commission to do it, but no mention was made to the commission of the newspaper's records request and — at least according to the draft minutes of the meeting when approval was given — no commission member bothered to ask any questions about it.

What was not mentioned at the time was the newspaper's ongoing effort to assess whether county government was following state law in making proper and timely responses to public record requests. Our reporter, Sarah Grace Taylor, suspected the county was not fully doing what it should.

In the approximately six months between the reporter's requests and her learning the records had been destroyed was back-and-forth communication that included the county's requirement of a $717 advance fee to compile and print the records, the newspaper's refusal to pay since the reporter only wanted to see the records, an advisory opinion from the state Office of Open Records Counsel that the newspaper was within its rights, and a follow-up request to the county to see the records.

Shortly after that follow-up, an attorney in the Hamilton County Attorney's Office brought a resolution to the records commission to destroy public records requests and responses after 30 days. No statute, it was said, detailed how long such records must be retained. The vote to destroy the records was unanimous, 4-0.

Since the newspaper was never notified the records were destroyed, it continued to press for the documents, even narrowing the request last month to make it easier to fulfill. Nearly two weeks after that request, the newspaper was informed by the county that all email public records requests and responses had been destroyed. However, the county offered up a few pieces of U.S. mail correspondence it still had and requests made via an online county request form. 

It's hard to see a scenario in which the county looks innocent in this. If the county was doing what it should, why did it improperly request money for copies of records the newspaper only wanted to see? If it was not doing right by the public, the records destruction only makes the county look guiltier. Either way, a taxpayer-funded office was not acting in a transparent manner the public should expect.

Unfortunately, it's not the first time.

In 2007, the newspaper's executive editor at the time wrote, concerning an issue of the ability of county boards to meet in private, "the Hamilton County attorney, Rheubin Taylor, who works for both the county mayor and the county commission, is casting vote after vote to close out the public."

That same year, he had voted in the minority of a legislative study committee vote to back off a previous proposal that would have let officials from cities, counties and other governing bodies meet privately provided there was no quorum of members present. In other words, he voted for less "sunshine" on the meetings.

In 2010, Taylor said the emails of a county employee doing private business on county computers were personal and not considered a public record. The executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government disagreed, saying the legislature clearly intended them to be public record. Ultimately, the employee was suspended for five days.

Later that year, the county attorney first ruled interviews for a county mayor appointment had to be public. Then, citing the advice of the state Office of Open Records counsel, he said they could be private. Subsequently, the state counsel denied she had given him such advice but only had described a previous court opinion.

In 2012, Taylor denied under attorney-client privilege a request to make certain tax increment financing records public. His decision was overruled by the state open records counsel, and he was ordered to turn over the documents.

This is not a good trend, but it seems to occur in many governments when public servants stay so long they become a part of the furniture. And, somehow, the furniture seems to get protected more diligently than the public.

Taylor, who will be 72 this year, has been on the Hamilton County payroll for more than 40 years, 15 years as a commissioner and going on 27 years as county attorney. Perhaps the county could benefit from a more diligent advocate of transparency.

WE NEED YOUR HELP

If you filed an open records request with the county between Aug. 1, 2018 - Aug. 1 2019, we want to hear from you. Please send your request and correspondence with the attorney's office to staylor@timesfreepress.com or contact us at (423)757-6416.

 

Pam Sohn: County's records purge is a purge of your freedom

Your local government has been at work — destroying records.

Were they important records? We wish we could tell you, but we can't. The Hamilton County Attorney's Office destroyed the bulk of the records requested six months ago by the Times Free Press.

The county failed to say anything about the records destruction for another four months, during which there was quite a bit of correspondence before the county finally admitted that most of the pages of documents no longer existed.

The request was simple. We wanted to see any and all freedom of information requests made from you or us or developers or attorneys or even other government officials made and considered between Aug. 1, 2018 and Aug. 1, 2019.

Times Free Press reporter Sarah Grace Taylor made the request after a previous request for different information pertaining to county commission actions was partially denied. Those denials prompted Taylor and editors to become concerned that the county government was not following state law in its responses to public records requests.

Why does it matter? Here is just a smattering of what you taxpayers, parents and voters know today thanks to this and other news organizations' use of the public records law:

— We now have a full accounting after 2013 of the nearly $1 million Hamilton County commissioners doled out to their own favorite causes (or whims) — from ball team uniforms to public art — through what they called their "discretionary" funds. That's taxpayer money.

— Nearly a third of Hamilton County teachers (in 2016) ranked among the state's "least effective — far more than at other metro school systems in Tennessee and more than double the state's average. What's more, those "least effective" teachers — based on state testing — were assigned disproportionately to the county's low-income schools.

— Three years after Georgia state officials said they'd seen no evidence that election-related data was compromised in a 2016 suspected Russian hack, documents obtained by an independent researcher from the FBI in a Freedom of Information Act request and shared with The Associated Press found no indication that the FBI ever examined a Kennesaw State University server involved for evidence of tampering — casting doubt on the state's assertions.

But back to the newest issue at hand: When the Times Free Press sought to see all freedom of information requests to the county, the county attorney's office balked, claiming that "if it comes into [the county attorney's] office, it's privileged." Never mind that state law spells out who's in charge of the "public" records — in this case it's the county attorney — and how a records request is supposed to be handled. And, no, it's not privileged.

Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin M. Taylor — the designated "public records request coordinator" said the newspaper would have to pay $717 in advance for his office to compile and print the records to make them available for inspection.

It was our turn to balk. No charges may be levied for us — or you — to inspect those records. The county attorney's office dug in and doubled down. The reporter persisted with a follow-up email in mid-September. A meeting of the Hamilton County Public Records Commission was called and set for Oct. 2.

At that meeting Dana Beltramo with the County Attorney's Office brought a resolution seeking the commission's permission to destroy public record requests and responses after 30 days. Beltramo said 98% of the requests are in the form of emails. A motion to approve the resolution was made by Marc Gravitt, register of deeds, and seconded by Bart McKinney, director of county information technology. The vote to approve the resolution was unanimous. County Commissioner Randy Fairbanks and County Clerk Bill Knowles were the other two public records commission members present.

Doesn't it make you want to know what is viewed as so touchy that suddenly out of the blue there was a need to destroy records? Most were just emails, after all. It's not like they were taking up an entire file cabinet.

Meanwhile, the county scheduled a meeting with newspaper representatives to try to break the impasse.

On Jan. 21, the county attorney's office said the email records were gone.

Commission Chairman Fairbanks says he had no knowledge of the paper's request. County Attorney Taylor denies that the destruction was related in any way to our request. Beltramo, who was the regular contact point with the paper and who brought the resolution to destroy the records, did not respond to requests for comment.

It's what they're telling you that matters. They are telling you that they don't have to be accountable to state law — or to you.

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