Tracy Pack filed an open records lawsuit more than three years ago after he had requested records under the Tennessee Public Records Act and received what he suspected was an incomplete response.
He told The Murfreesboro Post that he “just wanted to know whether county funds were being spent properly.” Pack had requested copies of checks written by former principal Chontel Bridgeman on a Homer Pittard Campus School checking account.
The award is the second time in recent months in which the Tennessee Public Records Act was used to reimburse a citizen for attorney fees after the citizen had to file a lawsuit to enforce the law’s provisions. An appeals court in February upheld an award of $71,343 in attorney fees for Rebecca Little of Chattanooga who was denied access to sewer records.
In Little’s case, the appeals court found that the city of Chattanooga was willful in its denial of records, knowing what the law required, but choosing not to abide by it. The “willful” finding is what allowed for attorney’s fees to be awarded.
The Murfreesboro Post reported testimony and evidence presented in the school case that was used to argue that the staff knew it had records that Pack wanted but did not produce them. Here is an excerpt from the newspaper’s story:
Suspicious of the board’s actions, Pack requested copies of emails sent by Bridgeman on school computers and the contents of files that resided on her school laptop, including files that concerned his son Madden, who was a student at Campus School at the time.
Pack was told repeatedly that such files never existed or were deleted and that such emails were private, but Chancellor Robert Corlew III disagreed and laid out a process by which the documents would be discovered and given to Pack, under court authority with the help of a computer forensics expert.
Documents given to Pack as part of that process were actually used by his attorney Wednesday as evidence of the Board’s attempts to conceal public records and frustrate the process.
“I am not sending the contents of the Madden Pack files at this point,” read an email from board Attorney Angel McCloud to Bridgeman on Jan. 14, 2011, months after Pack had been told repeatedly that the files did not exist.
A file was attached to that email named “madden_pack.zip”, totaling more than 45 kilobytes of digital information.
McCloud later testified under oath on Jan. 25 that the files did not exist.
The newspaper reported that Corlew ruled that “the Board of Education had been slow in producing requested documents, forcing Pack to hire counsel, and therefore Pack was entitled to reimbursement by the board for his legal fees under the Tennessee Public Records Act.”
Pack’s attorney, Theodore Goodman of Murfree & Murfree PLLC, told the Murfreesboro Post that the case was a triumph for citizens who seek oversight of their government. Following is an excerpt from the story:
“This case is much larger than Dr. Pack or the Board: this case is about the fundamental principles of our democracy.” He stated in a memo to the court. “A government allowed to operate in secret is dangerous to democracy because its citizens cannot oversee their public officials.”
Goodman went on to say that if the court had not awarded Pack his legal fees, then “the board and all other government agencies would learn a dangerous lesson: that they can use the citizens’ own resources against them to obstruct their access to public records, and only those rare citizens with the resources and the tenacity to pursue records with full-blown legal action will have access to records about our government. That is not a democracy.”
Read the full Murfreesboro Post story here.
-Written by Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, an alliance of media, citizens and good government groups that provides education and research on open government issues throughout Tennessee.