I talked with Rebecca Little this morning about her victory at the appeals court last week in her public records lawsuit.
The appeals court on Friday overturned Hamilton County Chancellor W. Frank Brown in Little’s public records case against the city of Chattanooga – ruling that the city must reimburse Little $71,343 in attorney fees and other costs to bring the lawsuit.
You can read about the legal decisions here.
Little and her family operates Tennessee Riverplace, a bed and breakfast on the north side of Lookout Valley in Chattanooga. Her father bought the land in 1999 with the idea of hosting conferences.
Sitting at the mouth of the river against a beautiful backdrop, it mostly handles weddings and reunions.
Over the years, the Little family wanted to expand their enterprise, adding an assembly room, for example. But they kept getting rejections from the city of Chattanooga because, as Little put it, “the infrastructure was so bad.”
Then Little happened to attend a community meeting in August 2009 about the city’s plan to annex several pieces of land. During the meeting, she said she realized that the services that the city was offering to the new areas to be annexed had never been delivered to her community which had been approved for annexation in 1972, and annexed in 1974.
“I’m just sitting here with the plan of services for the new areas. And I thought something is wrong with this. Our roads are terrible. We don’t have sewer services,” she said. Why is the city promising services to new areas it wants to annex when it hadn’t yet provided services to old areas it had annexed?
She and her family attempted to work with the city to get services – improved roads, storm sewers, sanitary sewers and such. But she said they were told by the mayor that services are driven by population density, and the area wasn’t dense enough to warrant it.
“We thought for a little while the city was acting in good faith,” she said.
Someone suggested the community try de-annexation, so neighbors got together and submitted a petition in 2010 that was ultimately denied by the city council, she said.
As Little investigated further, she found that during the 1972 approval to annex, the city had agreed to certain services.
“Finally, when we realized no one would talk with us anymore, that’s when dad filed his petition in May 2011.”
Little also found that according to state law (Tennessee Code 6-51-108(b)), the city was supposed to publish progress reports annually to the public regarding services to areas it had annexed.
She requested those documents and others regarding the city’s progress on services promised during annexation using the Tennessee Public Records Act in June 2011. She wanted to find out what the city had done and hadn’t done in terms of services to the area.
When the city did not respond as required by the Tennessee Public Records Act, Little filed a lawsuit to try to get access to the records under a provision provided by the public records law. The appeals court on Friday overruled the Hamilton County judge in the case, saying Little was owed money she had to spend in attorney fees and other costs to press her lawsuit. The city had been found “willful” in its actions in not following the public records laws.
“At the end of the day, to me, it’s exciting that we finally prevailed, but it’s also depressing because most people don’t have $70,000 to get public records,” Little said. “To me it says the city doesn’t have a public records policy. To me it says the average citizen doesn’t have access to public records.”
The Little family still has not gotten resolution on services to be provided to the annexed area – or allowing the area to de-annex.
Little’s summary: “When citizens don’t follow the law, they are held accountable. It’s frustrating when the city doesn’t follow law, no one holds them accountable.”
Citizen Little, I think you just did.
-Deborah Fisher, executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.