New Memphis mayor to change city’s public records process, move it out of legal

New Memphis mayor Jim Strickland plans to implement at least one of the recommendations from a report earlier this year that suggested an overhaul of how the city handles public records request.

In “Strickland says changes will improve communication,” Commercial Appeal politics and policy reporter Ryan Poe writes:

Among his first acts as Memphis mayor, Jim Strickland plans to shake up the city’s public records process, which a report issued in May said was “inefficient” and at times had perhaps inadvertently violated the law.

Doug McGowen (from left), Bruce McMullen, Ursula Madden, Jim Strickland, Brian Collins, Toney Armstrong

Doug McGowen (from left), Bruce McMullen, Ursula Madden, Jim Strickland, Brian Collins, Toney Armstrong

As he announced several executive-level appointments Monday, Strickland he would make newly appointed chief communications officer — WMC Action News 5 anchor Ursula Madden — responsible for public records instead of the chief legal officer.

“We’re also going to do a better job of communicating with the public and the city employees about what’s going on,” he said. “Transparency is (important to) not only the media, but the public in general.”

Strickland, who takes office Jan. 1, said his administration “will work very hard to be transparent,” especially with city finances.

Moving public records from the city attorneys was at the top of the list of 23 recommendations made by former County Commissioner Mike Carpenter, who researched and wrote the public records report at the request of Mayor A C Wharton.

“Not everything needs legal review,” he said.

Carpenter said none of the recommendations have been made to his knowledge, and he was told they were being put on the “back burner” until after the Oct. 8 election.

If Strickland implements Carpenter’s recommendations as they’re written in the report, he’ll create a policy for putting different kinds of information requests in different tiers. Lower-tier information — maps for instance — can be released immediately, while personnel files and other information in higher tiers could be flagged for legal review.

“It takes away some of the stigma of having to deal with lawyers,” he said, chuckling.

Carpenter envisioned a “top-down” change in the culture of City Hall that included getting rid of a number of record custodian positions, which he said weren’t very active in the public records process anyway.

“Public records have to be the job of everybody in city government,” he said.

Strickland appointees Ursula Madden and Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen, who also don’t start until Jan. 1, declined to comment for this story.

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