The Sumner County school board voted last night unanimously to appeal a ruling by a local judge in an open records case where they were found to violate the law in refusing to accept a citizen’s public records request.
Here is an excerpt from the story by The Gallatin News: Sumner schools will appeal judge’s ruling in open records case
The matter stems from a Nov. 13 ruling by Sumner County Criminal Court Judge Dee Gay, who ordered the board to no longer use its policy and come up with a new one for him to review by March 1, 2016.
The question of the legality of the policy arose after Ken Jakes of Joelton sued the board April 9, 2014, after he felt the schools denied a public records request he sent via email in March of 2014.
The policy required all public records requests be in writing – either in person or via U.S. Mail, which Gay said was “a clear violation of the law,” Gay wrote in the ruling, as the Tennessee Public Records Act (TPRA) specifically states “A records custodian may not require a written request.”
In a statement released Wednesday, Nashville attorney Todd Presnell, who represents the Sumner County school board, addressed the board’s decision to appeal.
“The Board, in consultation with its attorneys, has reviewed and considered Judge Gay’s Nov. 13 ruling in the Jakes case,” he said. “Prior to Mr. Jakes’ issue with his public-records request, no citizen had ever complained about the Board’s public-records-request policy or its response to public-records requests.
“The trial proved that Mr. Jakes knew the Board’s policy on accepting public-records requests and intentionally submitted a request that he knew violated that policy. And Mr. Jakes’ requested a document that the Board had previously made public and was readily available on its website. The Board did not choose a lawsuit with Mr. Jakes; rather, Mr. Jakes sued the Board over an improper request for a document already made public, and the Board had to defend its policies and its employees who fulfill public-records requests.”
Presnell said all of the school board members have a high level of respect for Gay, but disagree with the ruling.
“While the Board agrees with and appreciates his ruling that the Board’s employees acted in good faith and took all appropriate measures in responding to Mr. Jakes, it was disappointed with the court’s ruling that its public-records policy is not compliant with Tennessee’s Public Records Act,” he said. “This is a legal determination, and the Board respectfully disagrees with the court’s legal interpretation of a Tennessee statute. And because of this disagreement over a legal interpretation, the Board has elected to appeal the court’s ruling to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.”
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government said she was disappointed the Sumner school system has decided to challenge the ruling.
“That means that thousands more in taxpayer dollars will be spent to fight for the school district’s ability to refuse to let citizens see public records if the citizen calls or emails their request first,” Fisher said. “Not only has a judge said the policy violates the law, it makes no sense, is overly bureaucratic and wastes time and money.
“The school district uses the phone and email for all kinds of government business – why refuse to use these methods to accept public records requests? Why make citizens and news reporters wait days for the post office to deliver a letter? Or make someone drive to Gallatin? The school district seems bent on discouraging the public and the news media from getting information quickly and knowing what their government is doing. It appears they want to make it as hard as possible.”
Other stories on this case: