How the Sheriff’s Office wastes your money: Open Records request gets the interrogation room

As I recently wrote, it has been and continues to be my mission to provide open, transparent and accountable government in addition to restoring liberty.  For those saying this is an exercise in futility, you are mostly right but if we don’t try we automatically lose.

My adventures in head banging started long before I (Tona Monroe) became a county commissioner.  Describing my efforts in engaging the system as an “adventure” is at times an embellishment because it implies that there is some uncertainty in the outcome.  Often the outcome is quite predictable.  Bureaucrats will drag their feet as long as you will let them.  Other times it is very much an adventure in head banging.

Several years ago, I sent an open records request and request for information to the Blount County Sherriff’s Office.  I received a written response telling me that I would have to come to the Blount County Justice Center and provide a government issued photo ID.  This seemed a bit excessive to me, especially since I had just made a similar request with the state of Tennessee and did not have to drive to Nashville with a photo ID.

Karen Miller, who at that time was a concerned citizen like me and had not yet been elected to public office, Harry Grothjahn, a member of the press, and my husband Troy Ball accompanied me the Justice Center to comply with the request from the Sheriff’s Office.  Deputy Chief, then called Assistant Chief, Jimmy Long placed us in the interrogation room while he photocopied my ID and made me restate the request even thought I had provided what I wanted in writing.

Flash forward a couple years.  Karen Miller and I are both county commissioners, my website serves as a media source primarily publishing information about local government and restoring freedom, and obtaining information from local government still can be quite difficult.

After a series of unanswered request for open records and information from the Mayor’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office, earlier this year, I went above their heads to the State Office of Open Records Counsel.  Amazingly both offices responded within hours of the Open Records Counsel telling them to comply with the state open records law.

The response from the Mayor’s Office to the Office of Open Records Counsel was reasonable.  I was given the requested record that afternoon.

The response from the Sheriff’s Office was excessive and a waste of taxpayer money.  The Sheriff’s Office had Not the County Attorney Craig Garrett send a written response, by email, to Open Records Counsel and cc’ed me on the email.  You can read the letter here.

Ms. Ann Butterworth responded to the letter from the Not the County Attorney by email saying:

“Dear County Attorney Garrett:

Thank you for responding to my inquiry regarding public record requests made by Ms. Monroe.  I support the County’s direction to develop a reasonable rule to govern public record requests.  Tenn. Code Ann. Section 10-7-506(a) provides “that the lawful custodian of such records shall have the right to adopt and enforce reasonable rules governing the making of such extracts, copies, photographs or photostats.”  Without properly adopted reasonable rules in place, a records custodian is not authorized to charge for copies.

I disagree with the approach the County is taking with regard to requests from citizens (whether they are also elected officials or not).  The County, as the record custodian, does have the right to require proof of citizenship by presentation of a government issued photo ID with a home address.  However, I do not see where the County requested Ms. Monroe to present the identification prior to viewing the record as permitted by Tenn. Code Ann. Section 10-7-503(a)(7)(A).   Since Ms. Monroe is a Commissioner for the County, and a request for identification was not made, I do not see how the County could justify its refusal to respond to her public records request on the basis of citizenship.

The County, as the record custodian, should not ignore a request made under the Tennessee Public Records Act.

While custodians of public records do not have an obligation to review and search their records pursuant to a Public Records Act request, they do have the clear obligation to produce those records for inspection, unless otherwise provided by state law, and to provide a copy or copies of any such record requested by such citizen, upon the payment of a reasonable charge or fee therefor.  T.C.A. § 10-7-503.  Waller v. Bryan, 1999, 16 S.W.3d 770, appeal denied.

The appropriate response is a written denial indicating that no such record exists and that Tenn. Code Ann. Section 10-7-503(a)(5) does not require a custodian to create a record that does not already exist.  Tenn. Code Ann. Section 10-7-503(a)(3) provides that failure to respond constitutes a denial and the requestor has the right to bring an action under Tenn. Code Ann. Section 10-7-505.  If the requested documents did exist, I believe a court would find the County to be willful in its action of failing to provide the documents.

Whether or not a governmental entity has a full-time position designated to respond to public records requests, under Tenn. Code Ann. Section 10-7-503(a)(2)(B), record custodians are required to promptly make open public records available for inspection and, if requested, to provide copies of such records.  If prompt response is not practicable, then a record custodian must respond using the form developed by this Office.

If you have any questions, or would like assistance with or review of the proposed rule for the County, please let me know.

Ann V. Butterworth Open Records Counsel & Assistant to the Comptroller for Public Finance”

About a week later, I received the record that I requested.  It would have been much simpler if the Sheriff’s Office had responded in a timely manner, without wasting money on an attorney.  This occurred after Chief Deputy Jeff French told the commission in June that any commissioner was welcome to come to his office to see where money had been spent.  Hopefully open records and information requests in the future won’t result in letters from attorneys and placing citizens and members of the press in an interrogation room.

Why is all of this important to you?

Besides placing citizens and a member of the press in an interrogation room for asking for public records and information, and failing to respond to requests, the State of Tennessee is considering allowing local governments to charge you, the taxpaying citizens, just to look at your governments public records.  Show up and speak out at the hearing in Knoxville on September 15.  This is your government and its time to remind those who are suppose to “serve” you of that.

5 thoughts on “How the Sheriff’s Office wastes your money: Open Records request gets the interrogation room

  1. Record document or information request ? So one must be clear with making a record document request ? Does this imply that information requests shall be ignored ?

  2. Pingback: Blount County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have open records policy | Blount County (BC) Public Record

  3. Pingback: May 2017 Commission Report | Blount County (BC) Public Record

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