Thursday, April 27, 2006

April 27, 2006 Public Records: The best and often only way to get the facts about government spending

As mentioned in the previous post, I have been put in situations where I have been denied access to public documents and I have been forced to file a lawsuit in order to get access to the records.

Filing such a lawsuit is never done lightly--it is both costly and time-consuming. Unfortunately, however, it is the only choice that a citizen has when denied access to public documents.

Of course, a lot of people decide to simply walk away from the situation when a government official says "no" to their public document request.

And government officials love that response.

On the other hand, government officials hate it when a citizen has the nerve to assert his/her rights and actually file a petition in court for access to public documents as provided by the law.

In my situation, I requested building program documents from the Hamblen County School Board (e.g. letters, contracts, bidding tabulations, and later the legal billings from the Board's attorney Scott Reams).

It was when I saw Reams' billings that I realized that there were a lot of building program documents that I didn't even know about. These documents were apparently being kept at his office and nowhere else.

I prepared a request for some of the building program documents kept only in his office, and that's when the Board and Reams drew a line in the sand.

Mr. Reams sent me a letter (with a copy to the Board) saying that I would have to pay him $100/hour to retrieve and review the building program documents that were being kept in his files and to redact (mark out) any confidential student or teacher information from his billings.

Well, I never wanted to see any student/teacher confidential information anyway, so redacting that information, which the law permits and which should be done, was fine with me.

What was not fine was Reams' demand for direct payment to him of $100/hour for this.

Frankly, charging a citizen $100/hour for a government document request of this nature is, in my opinion, exorbitant and outrageous.

With a charge of $100/hour, the Board and Reams might as well have said, "You just can't see it. And to make sure of that, the Board's attorney is going to charge you so much that it will make it impossible for you or anyone else to pursue requests for the building program documents that are stashed in the attorney's office."

By the way, Reams was charging the Board $80/hour at this time, but, as his letter states, he was requiring that citizens pay him $100/hour for retrieval and review of the school building documents that were in his exclusive possession as attorney for the Board.

More in future posts...

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

April 26, 2006 Open Records Laws and Newspaper Reports

The open records laws in Tennessee are critically important to newspapers, citizens, and others who wish to know what their government is doing.

I am a member of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (TCOG). This group stands for openness and "sunshine" in government at all levels.

Several weeks ago, the local newspaper, the Citizen Tribune, ran article after article and editorial after editorial with words of praise and support for Tennessee's open records laws.

As a member of TCOG, I was certainly very pleased to see the Tribune exhibiting such passionate support of open records laws in Tennessee.

But where is the Tribune when the rubber hits the road?

The Sheriff of Hamblen County was recently sued over his refusal to provide public records to an individual. A citizen has only one option when denied access to public records-- that option is to file a lawsuit against the government official that denied access.

Apparently, the individual did file suit and the Sheriff responded quickly after the lawsuit was filed, saying it was all a mistake, and belatedly providing the record.

Maybe the Sheriff really thought that personnel records of public employees (with confidential information like SS# and bank information, etc. blacked out) were not public records. Maybe the Sheriff just didn't know the open records laws.

Maybe the Sheriff thought he could ignore the request and the person would go away (as often happens when people are confronted by the power and occasional arrogance of the government).

Maybe the Sheriff wasn't concerned at all because, right or wrong, he has a government-paid attorney to defend his actions.

But where is the Tribune article shedding sunshine on this situation?

Where is the reporting on what actually happened? What was the Sheriff's position? What was the citizen's position?

I, too, have been involved in situations where I had to file suit against government officials in order to gain access to public records.

More on public records in my next post...

Saturday, April 15, 2006

April 15, 2006 I'm back!

For those of you who were concerned and asked why I wasn't blogging over the last 2+ weeks (and for those who weren't concerned but were just relieved that this blog was quiet)...

noe4accountability is at it again.

Problem--my (desktop) computer crashed. The poor thing was old, overloaded with years and years of computer junk, and just couldn't take it any longer.

I took it to a computer shop to get all my files off of the desktop and put them on an external drive. The owner of the shop got everything off of the old computer just fine.

But when she was getting ready to add new internet software to the laptop and show me how to load the old information onto the laptop, there was bad news.

The laptop was on the verge of kicking the bucket, too. It had "cookies" and old temporary internet files (going back 5 years) and all kinds of saved junk taking up computer storage space.

Computer-savvy people will know what cookies and temp internet files are. They also know (as I now know) that you have to get that junk out of your computer now and then just like you have to clean your closets now and then.

It took a while to get all these problems resolved. The laptop is cleaned up. I can use it now to get on the internet again. And, yes, I have a lots of unposted blogs ready to put out!