The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government alleged on Monday that members of the Hamilton County government destroyed public records to keep them away from members of the media.
In a new column, the TCOG specifically cited Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor.
Taylor, the TCOG went on to say, refused to allow inspection of its responses to public records requests without the Chattanooga Times Free Press paying a more than $700 fee. Taylor’s office later got permission to destroy the requested records, even as the newspaper continued to press to see them, said TCOG Executive Director Deborah Fisher.
Taylor did not respond to The Tennessee Star’s repeated requests for comment Monday. No one at County Mayor Jim Coppinger’s office responded to our requests either.
Only one of the nine county commissioners, Sabrena Smedley, responded to our request to speak Monday.
Smedley said she and her colleagues on the commission never granted permission to Taylor to destroy those records.
“It’s my understanding there is a public records commission, and they are the ones that voted on this issue, but I don’t know what all happened. I was told the actual records were not destroyed, just copies they had made to give the media,” Smedley said.
“If there had been actual records destroyed then I would be extremely concerned, but I need to know that that is actually what happened because I am hearing conflicting stories. I just really want to know whether the records were destroyed. Yes or no?”
Smedley said she plans to talk to Taylor about this matter before the next scheduled county commission meeting.
Fisher, speaking for the TCOG, said a Times Free Press reporter wanted to “inspect all public records requests and responses to those requests for the previous 12 months from the Hamilton County Attorney’s Office.”
“Though the newspaper was only requesting to see the public records requests and written responses for the parts of county government handled by the county attorney’s office, the county attorney’s office said the newspaper would have to pay $717 in advance to compile and print the records to make them available for inspection,” Fisher wrote.
“The newspaper balked. It only asked to inspect records, not get copies. And under the law, no charges could be levied for inspection. The newspaper had advisory opinions from the state Office of Open Records Counsel to back it up. The county attorney’s office was unswayed by the newspaper’s protestations.”
Last October, Fisher went on to say, members of the Hamilton County Public Records Commission went along with a resolution that sought permission to destroy public records’ requests and responses after 30 days.
“A few months pass, and newspaper executives began to get involved in the stymied request, including meeting with county officials to press their case. They were unaware then that the county attorney’s office had gotten permission to destroy the very records they had been requesting,” Fisher wrote.
“On Jan. 21, Beltramo responded and shared for the first time that, actually, the requests and written responses to the requests had been destroyed.”
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