Memphis public records report lists deficiencies, recommends 23 changes

In late March, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Jr. requested Mike Carpenter, a former county commissioner and now executive director of the Plough Foundation, to conduct of review of how the city responds to public records requests and make recommendations on improvements.

The report, Review of Public Records and Transparency in City Government, was delivered to the mayor late last week. Carpenter interviewed numerous sources to understand the processes and the tensions, including city and county employees, local reporters and editors, and experts on open government, including TCOG and the national group, The Sunlight Foundation.

Wharton asked for a “comprehensive review” to see if the city was “not just meeting the letter of the law, but that we have a process that fulfills the full intent of my executive order” referring to a Nov. 9, 2009 order that established standards for a transparent and open Memphis city government. Wharton said that it was his desire to “create a culture based on the understanding that the City of Memphis belongs to the public and to achieve the open government we desire and the public deserves.”

Carpenter said some of the deficiencies he identified stemmed “from inefficient processes, a lack of understanding of the State of Tennessee’s  Public Records Act by both employees and members of the public and a growing distrust between the public records staff at various levels of City government and the local media.  On the latter point, a healthy tension between government and the media is expected and beneficial.  However, when that ‘push and pull’ becomes an authentic tug of war, citizens and the processes suffer.”

Following is a news story about the Memphis public records report from the The Commercial Appeal, by reporter Kyle Veazey:

Former County Commissioner Mike Carpenter delivered a list of 23 recommendations to improve the city’s public records process to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton last week.

Wharton commissioned Carpenter’s study of how the city fulfills records requests in March. He asked Carpenter to review the city’s transparency in light of Wharton’s 2009 executive order “establishing an open and transparent city government.” In his initial letter to Carpenter, Wharton acknowledged “there are areas in which we are falling short.”

In a 20-page letter dated April 30, Carpenter, now the executive director of the Plough Foundation, told Wharton that “the intent of the Executive Order has not been met and at times the law may have been inadvertently violated.”

Carpenter said the “deficiencies … stem from inefficient processes, a lack of understanding of the State of Tennessee’s Public Records Act by both employees and members of the public and a growing distrust between the public records staff at various levels of City government and the local media.”

Among Carpenter’s recommendations:

— Transfer the city’s public records responsibilities from the law division to the executive division

— Appoint a public records ombudsman and an oversight committee

— Stop charging for labor costs associated with requests

— Explore technology that will speed up requests for emails

— Make Memphis Police Department incident reports available within 48 hours

— Issue a new executive order with updates to the policy, and ask the City Council to pass an ordinance that contains the recommendations

Carpenter found that public records requests from Oct. 1, 2014 to March 26 spent an average of 8.7 business days open.

“What is clear is that any change you choose to adopt must be emphasized from ‘the top’ and take on an importance commensurate with that of other major city initiatives,” Carpenter wrote. “There must [sic] an insistence that all employees comply, proper incentives for complying and consequences for failure to comply.”

Carpenter listed 28 individuals interviewed for the report, including Louis Graham, editor of The Commercial Appeal, and Lucian Pera, The CA’s attorney.

Read the full report here: Review of Public Records and Transparency in City Government

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