The Tennessean: Sumner Schools legal bills climb to $113K in public records case

After months of questioning from journalists, the Sumner County School District released more information in January on how much it is paying a Nashville law firm to represent it in a public records lawsuit. The school district is defending its ability to deny access to records if the person requesting to see the records does not make the request by U.S. Mail or in person.

From reporter Jennifer Easton with The Tennessean:

Sumner County Schools’ most recent legal bills show the district has spent more than $113,000 defending an open records case now headed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

Sumner school board members voted unanimously on Dec. 1, 2015 to appeal Judge Dee David Gay’s ruling that the district violated the Tennessee Public Records Act when it refused a Joelton man’s records request.

The suit was filed in April 2014 by Ken Jakes, of Joelton, after Sumner schools spokesman Jeremy Johnson denied Jakes’ request to view the school system’s policy on open records. Johnson denied the request because Jakes asked to view the policy over email and in a voicemail rather than in person or by U.S. Postal Service.

As of Feb. 3, the Sumner County Board of Education had not adopted a records policy that complies with state law. In addition, the district has not complied with Gay’s order to stop its practice of requiring citizens to make requests in person or via U.S. Postal Service.

Following the two-day trial in July, the Gallatin News Examiner made numerous inquiries in person, by telephone and in written requests to the Sumner County Board of Education for information about the school district’s legal costs to defend the case.

In September, the board provided redacted invoices for the Jakes case covering the time from April 2014 to February 2015 from Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, LLP totaling almost $83,000.

School officials said the district did not receive invoices from the firm for services after February 2015 and didn’t know why. Johnson in November declined a reporter’s request to solicit information about money owed to the firm in the Jakes case, including hours worked and attorneys’ hourly rates. The board’s attorney, Todd Presnell, declined to answer a reporter’s questions about his fee or why the firm hadn’t billed the school board for several months.

The News Examiner submitted a second request for invoices in the Jakes case on Jan 21. The district on Feb. 2 made available one redacted invoice dated Dec. 16, 2015 for $30,305, bringing the total legal expenses to a little more than $113,000.

With the case headed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, legal fees are likely to increase.

School board members more than doubled the district’s budget for legal services in the last two years, budgeting $212,031 in the 2013-14 general purpose budget and $550,000 for 2015-16.

“From a taxpayer’s perspective it seems like it would be cheaper to just follow the law,” said Deborah Fisher, executive director for the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “This case has shown that for a citizen to enforce the public records act, they have to file a lawsuit, but a public entity has an unlimited pocket book — of taxpayers’ money — to defend it, right or wrong.”

Motion for stay denied

Sumner school board members have until March 1 to adopt a public records policy in compliance with state law.

In a Jan. 25 hearing to consider the Sumner County Schools’ motion requesting more time, Gay admonished the school district for continuing to operate in violation of his ruling, according to court transcripts.

“The school board has displayed an attitude of arrogance, and I think that must apply when I consider a stay. Five years (of) blatant violation of the law. I made a ruling, and the —the board of education continues to operate in violation of my rule,” Gay said Jan. 25.

The school board’s argument that the volume of records requests would be costly and burden the day-to day operations of the school system was proved to be a moot point at trial, Gay said, pointing to Johnson’s testimony that he received 12 to 15 public records requests per year.

Gay rejected the school board’s argument more time was needed to put in place infrastructure to handle a substantially larger volume of public records requests that would be made by Jakes and other trial witnesses.

“What about the people that just want to make requests and you all are continuing to operate illegally?” Gay asked.

The judge criticized the school district for offering conspiracy theories in its argument for a stay.

“We’re becoming a country now of just conspiracy issues right and left, and I guess we’re starting to get into conspiracy issues in lawsuits, and I find that ridiculous,” he said.

Gay said the case had nothing to do with whether the school district should accept electronic mail. He suggested two possibilities to the school board, “a website, which is already up and running, and telephones, which are already in service.”

The Board of Education is expected to meet in its next regularly scheduled meeting Feb. 16 at 6 p.m. at the district’s central office, 695 E. Main St. in Gallatin.

COST TO TAXPAYERS

The Sumner County Board of Education provided expenses paid for legal services in Ken Jakes vs. Sumner County Board of Education for the following months:

April 2014 -$2,520

May 2014 -$4,498

June 2014 -$2,995

July 2014 -$4015

Aug. 2014- $6,897

Sept. 2014 -$10,693

Oct. 2014 – $4,173

Nov. 2014 – $1,051

Dec, 2014 – $1,844

Jan. 2015 – $21,998

Feb. 2015 $22,182

Nov. 2015 – $30,305

Total $113,171

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About Deborah Fisher

Deborah Fisher has been executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government since 2013. Previously she spent 25 years in the news industry as a journalist.

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