Reporter Tena Lee with the Hendersonville Star News and The Tennessean reports on a new public records issue in Sumner County — a challenge to a school board policy that requires a public records request to be made in person or by U.S. postal service. The article is reprinted here with permission:
An open records advocate told by the Sumner County Board of Education that he had to submit requests either in person or via U.S. mail rather than by email filed a lawsuit in Sumner County Chancery Court April 9 challenging the board’s practice.
Ken Jakes, a resident of Joelton, Tenn., emailed the board of education’s community relations supervisor, Jeremy Johnson, on March 21 asking to inspect and review the board’s records policy. Jakes asked for a link to the policy if it was online.
“In keeping with our practice regarding open records requests, you will need to either submit your request in person or via the postal service,” Johnson responded.
Jakes said he asked for the policy, both by email and in a telephone message, because he was told by someone he knew who requested records from the school system that they were being made to either make the requests in person or through the postal service.
When Jakes did read the school system’s policy, he said he didn’t see where an email request isn’t accepted.
Jakes also said that he’s made requests to the cities of Brentwood, Franklin, Millersville, Hendersonville and Metro Nashville via email, and this is the “first and only time” an email request wasn’t accepted.
“Nobody has requested this,” he said. “The only reason this has come up is to limit the number of requests they get.”
Email not mentioned in law
Sumner Board of Education attorney Jim Fuqua said on Monday he hadn’t seen the complaint and couldn’t comment on the lawsuit until he had.
The school system’s policy states, “requests for inspection or copies of public documents shall be made in writing on the ‘inspection/duplication of records request’ form provided by the Office of Open Records Counsel of the Comptroller’s Office of the State of Tennessee.”
According to Deborah Fisher, executive director of The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, state law makes it clear that a records custodian cannot require a written request to view a public record.
“A records custodian may not require a written request or assess a charge to view a public record unless otherwise required by law; however, a records custodian may require a request for copies of public records to be in writing or that the request be made on a form developed by the office of open records counsel,” states TCA 10-7-503(a)(7)(A).
Fisher admits state law doesn’t speak to the issue of whether a request can be submitted via email.
“However, my question is why are they trying to put an obstacle in front of the citizen when sending something by email is an accepted practice?” she said. “It seems like there’s an obstacle that doesn’t need to be there. It seems to go against the spirit of the law.”
Fisher also wonders why Johnson didn’t just email back to Jakes that the policy was online.
“If the policy is online, they should have told him,” she said.
Hendersonville officials have said they have at times been overwhelmed with open records requests from a few citizens — including Jakes — even blaming citizens in December for the city’s ability to complete its audit on time.
In October, Hendersonville’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen passed a new ordinance barring citizens from taking pictures of documents and allowing the city to charge for the labor required in retrieving and redacting records in the event copies are requested.
Other city, school system policies
Rutherford County Schools does not accept open records requests via email either, according to that district’s spokesman James Evans.
Evans said that the district’s policy states that all open records requests must be submitted in writing via U.S. Mail or in person, and that email requests will not be accepted as a valid open records request.
In Wilson County, an email request will be accepted if it’s in the form of a letter and has a signature.
Metro Nashville Schools does accept email requests for public records as do the cities of Hendersonville and Gallatin.
Jakes said he wants to establish legal precedent.
“If Sumner County can get by with making a requirement that a request has to be in person or through the U.S. Postal Service, then Hendersonville could follow it,” he said.
His lawsuit, represented by Goodlettsville attorney Kirk Clements, asks a judge to order the school system to accept open records requests via electronic mail as well as other forms of communication.
Contact Tena Lee at 615-575-7116 or on Twitter @tenalee1.