Thursday, February 6, 2020

A Tennessee County Destroyed Hundreds of Records Requested by a Local Newspaper

By Zuri Davis - February 06, 2020 at 03:55PM

For six months, a Tennessee reporter has been trying to obtain about 1,500 pages of records from the Hamilton County Attorney's Office. Sarah Grace Taylor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press is investigating whether the county has unlawfully denied public records requests. Rather than comply with Taylor's records request, the Hamilton County Attorney's Office ignored state law and chose to destroy most of the records altogether.

A report from last week details the fights over the records.

Last summer, the Times Free Press submitted a public records request to the Hamilton County Attorney's Office, which holds the county's general records. The paper sought information on a controversial private meeting between two commissioners, potentially an open meeting violation. In response, Hamilton County records coordinator Dana Beltramo told the paper that records in the office were "privileged" and "off limits."

Taylor submitted another request on August 5, 2019, for one year's worth of records requests received by the county and the office's response to those requests. Roughly 1,500 pages of records matched Taylor's query.

The office initially tried to charge Taylor $717 to inspect the documents. The estimate covered a $222 copy fee and a $495 charge for labor costs ($45 for 12 hours of labor). The Tennessee Public Records Act states that a requestor can be charged for copies of documents, but does not allow for a requestor to be charged simply to inspect the documents. This is even reiterated on the office's own request form. Taylor refused to pay the unlawful charge, and the Times Free Press and Hamilton County spent several weeks debating state law over email.

In January, the Hamilton County Attorney's Office finally relented and gave the Times Free Press 268 pages of record requests. The rest, Beltramo informed the paper, were destroyed. The office determined that no statute compelled them to keep the public records requests longer than 30 days and that the office had received permission from the Hamilton County Public Records Commission in October 2019 to destroy requests and the office's responses to them. The Hamilton County Attorney's Office destroyed records request correspondence received via email, which accounted for 98% of the records requested by Taylor.

The Times Free Press is also beefing with Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, who said the October vote was unrelated to the August request. Rheubin Taylor, who stood by the legality of the $717 estimate, told the paper that the request was considered closed when the Times Free Press refused to pay. The Times Free Press says it emailed Rheubin Taylor two weeks before the October meeting asking him to reconsider the estimate. Five days after this exchange, an email went around showing Beltramo's destruction request on the agenda.

The debacle is still unfolding, but the Times Free Press saw a minor victory on Wednesday when Rheubin Taylor conceded that the $717 charge conflicted with state law.


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