The Sumner County School Board met last night to adopt a new policy on public records requests after a judge last year said their policy violated state law. They had refused to fulfill a request two years ago because a citizen made the request by sending an email and following up with a phone call, instead of using the U.S. Postal Service or appearing in person.
Read reporter Tena Lee’s coverage from the Gallatin News Examiner: School board to accept voicemail for records inspection.
Also, The Standard of Hendersonville’s story by Sherry Mitchell, who also got quotes from the attorney representing Ken Jakes: School board gets court-ordered policy change just under the wire.
Here is an excerpt from The Tennessean:
The Sumner County Board of Education voted in a special-called meeting March 1 to allow citizens to request to inspect records over voicemail but they’ll still require the public to ask for copies of records in person or by U.S. Postal Service only.
The board was under court order to change its records policy by Tuesday to comply with Sumner Judge Dee David Gay’s ruling in November in which he found the district violated the Tennessee Public Records Act. The Tennessee Court of Appeals on Feb. 24 denied the school board’s request for a stay, which would have allowed the school district to delay the implementation of a new public records policy during the appeal process.
Ken Jakes of Joelton sued the school district in April 2014 after the board denied his emailed request to view the district’s policy on public records. Gay ordered the board to change its policy, saying it did “not give the fullest possible access to public records.”
Policy establishes voicemail box
The board’s newly adopted policy establishes a dedicated telephone voicemail in which citizens can leave a message between the hours of 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, and 8 a.m.- 4 p.m. on Fridays.
White House school board member Ted Wise asked how the district could be sure that it was only accepting requests made by Tennessee citizens.
“I’m sure the staff will address the requests as they come in and immediately you would ask for a Tennessee driver’s license,” said Board Attorney Jim Fuqua.
Fuqua said the revised policy complies with the court order because it establishes a dedicated phone line and a website link to its policies already online. “I think this is as close as we can come,” Fuqua said. Gay’s order was unusual in that it was a “confusing opinion” and “awkwardly not specific,” Fuqua said. “That’s one reason I suspect we’re in the court of appeals – to clarify it – because it not only affects this school system but it affects (other) school systems in the state,” Fuqua said.
Here is an excerpt from The Standard of Hendersonville:
School Board Attorney Jim Fuqua said Gay had made two suggestions – not orders – and those changes were accepted by the school board.
“As near as we can figure from a confusing (court) opinion, this adopts those two changes,” Fuqua said.
MORE COULD BE DONE
Deborah Fisher, executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said there is still more the district could do to streamline the process for citizens.
“I hope the school board has decided to stop this extremely expensive nonsense of playing games with citizens when it comes to accessing public records,” Fisher said. “As of last November, they had paid their outside lawyer more than $113,000, and the costs to taxpayers are still mounting.”
Fisher said Gay quoted the law’s only real requirement for a public records request in Tennessee and that is that the request be “sufficiently detailed to enable the records custodian to identify the specific records to be located or copied.
“The school board’s attempt to add more requirements is what got them into this mess to begin with,” she said. “I’m glad they’ve decided to let people call them on the telephone, but if someone emails them a written request to see or get a copy of a public record, what are they going to do? Get dragged into another lawsuit?
“It just seems to be an invented controversy that the school board could put an end to if they wanted.”
Jake’s Attorney Fires Back
Kirk Clements, with Haynes, Freeman & Bracey, PLC, who is representing Jakes, said he found Fuqua’s comments on Gay’s ruling – “confusing” and “awkwardly not specific” to be inaccurate.
“This is a gross misrepresentation of the judge’s order,” Clements said. “The judge was very, very clear that a.) Mr. Jakes made a valid records (request) via email, and b.) The board’s current policy was in violation of the law because it presents a forced election that a citizen either had to make a request in writing or in person, both methods which are prohibited by law.
“Del Phillips and Beth Cox, similar to reading ambiguity into the law, are creating vagueness in the judge’s ruling to further their agenda against the citizens. If the judge’s order was awkwardly vague as Fuqua now asserts, it seems the last time the board was in front of the court on January 26, 2016, Fuqua and/or Presnell would have mentioned to the Judge his ruling was “confusing” and “awkwardly not specific” and requested guidance to ensure the board was in compliance with the court’s order. This was never indicated by Fuqua or Presnell and so I think the public should be very wary of such comments being made outside the presence of the judge.”