The city of Hendersonville has gotten quite a bit of practice in recent months in dealing with open records requests. By all accounts, it has been fulfilling voluminous public records requests from media and citizens who are scrutinizing city management.
In this story published by the Hendersonville Star News this week, reporter Tena Lee quotes city staff explaining why some documents the newspaper requested were improperly redacted, removing the names of job references. Here’s an excerpt from her story:
Two separate applications of former employee Trace Buerkett, who resigned Oct. 25, show the names of his personal references were redacted. Personnel Director Kaye Palmer said the references likely were city employees, but agreed only personal information such as an address or phone number should have been withheld, not the names.
When The Star News asked to see unredacted versions, the files showed (public works director Jerry) Horton, Codes Director Steve Mills, and public works employees Jerry Daniels and Duane Allen had been listed in Buerkett’s file on two different applications.
Human Resources Coordinator Shelly Cleek said a temporary worker likely made the mistake of redacting the names on the three separate documents.
Palmer attributed the error to “overzealous taping,” and said her department used to use a black marker to redact information until it was discovered people could see through that. Now they place correction tape over the information and make a copy of the document.
There’s certainly a balance written into Tennessee’s law that seeks to protect private personal information while also providing transparency on how government works. If you’re requesting public records, it’s good to know what’s exempted from disclosure under confidentiality statutes, especially if you receive a heavily redacted document. Unfortunately, exemptions are not all in one place, but you can ask the government entity to cite the part of Tennessee law allowing a redaction if you are unsure.
Below is part of the public records law — Tennessee Code Section 10-7-504(f)(1) — that deals with some commonly redacted items:
(f) (1) The following records or information of any state, county, municipal or other public employee or former employee, or applicant to such position, or of any law enforcement officer commissioned pursuant to § 49-7-118, in the possession of a governmental entity or any person in its capacity as an employer shall be treated as confidential and shall not be open for inspection by members of the public:
(A) Home telephone and personal cell phone numbers;
(B) Bank account and individual health savings account, retirement account and pension account information; provided, that nothing shall limit access to financial records of a governmental employer that show the amounts and sources of contributions to the accounts or the amount of pension or retirement benefits provided to the employee or former employee by the governmental employer;
(C) Social security number;
(D) (i) Residential information, including the street address, city, state and zip code, for any state employee; and
(ii) Residential street address for any county, municipal or other public employee;
(E) Driver license information except where driving or operating a vehicle is part of the employee’s job description or job duties or incidental to the performance of the employee’s job;
(F) The information listed in subdivisions (f)(1)(A)-(E) of immediate family members, whether or not the immediate family member resides with the employee, or household members;
(G) Emergency contact information, except for that information open to public inspection in accordance with subdivision (f)(1)(D)(ii); and
(H) Personal, nongovernment issued, email address.
– By Deborah Fisher, executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.