The Tennessean urges Sumner school board to release legal bills in public records fight

UPDATE, 3/18/16: The Sumner County Board of Education has released minimally redacted records of its billing statements for legal services in a high-profile lawsuit over access to public records. But the board has not yet been invoiced by a Nashville law firm for work done since Nov. 30, 2015. Read Sumner school board releases legal bills

Original story:

After receiving heavily redacted copies of legal bills for Sumner County Schools, the Gallatin News Examiner, Hendersonville Star News and The Tennessean sent a letter to the school district last week, asking it to justify its redactions or provide the information requested.

Reporter Jennifer Easton requested billing invoices by the law firm Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, LLP for work its attorney Todd Presnell and others have done over the past two years on a public records lawsuit against the district filed by Ken Jakes.

But the invoices received were redacted of everything but total amounts.

See The Tennessean’s story and read the letter at: Newspapers urge Sumner school board to release legal bills

“Blanked out on the billing statements are any description of services, task dates, timekeeper names, number of hours billed, rates and expenses,” said the newspapers’ attorney Robb Harvey. “The Board has charged Ms. Easton for pages with no or almost no information shown. With respect, we do not believe that the Board’s release of extremely limited information comports with either the letter or spirit of Tennessee law.”

Robb Harvey

Robb Harvey

Harvey goes on to say that “the Board may be entitled to redact material covered by the attorney-client privilege or the work product doctrine” but “neither of those permit the wholesale redaction of all information on the billing statements with the exception of a dollar figure for fees and expenses.”

The school district, according to the invoices, has been billed more than $113,000 for work on the case. That amount is expected to grow after the school board voted to appeal Judge Dee David Gay’s ruling that it had violated the Tennessee Public Records Act when it denied a request by Jakes to see its public records policy. The school board based its denial on its local policy that disallowed any request that came to it via email or telephone. Jakes emailed a request and followed up with a phone call. Judge Gay also ruled that the school board’s policy violates the Tennessee Public Records Act and ordered it to update it by March 1 to come into compliance. The school board has filed an emergency motion with the Court of Appeals, saying it would cost too much to accept public records requests by email, over the web or by phone.

Getting the legal bills of the school district has been difficult. Reporters for at least two media outlets originally requested and received total amounts spent from April 2014 through February 2015. But after they reported how much was spent, and it appeared in news reports, the school board suddenly stopped receiving monthly invoices and refused to explain why.

Finally, after repeated requests, media outlets were given another invoice that covered some undefined period ending November 30, 2015, showing total billing had reached at that time over $113,000.

Still, the hourly fees, or amount of hours spent was not revealed. The Tennessean has reported that the school board has increased its budget for legal fees to $550,000 for 2015/2016.

“Providing public education to children and teens is one of the fundamental responsibilities of government, and the expenditure of public monies is of great public interest,” Harvey wrote. “It is critical that the public have confidence in the Sumner County Board of Education, and promoting a culture of openness and transparency is key to creating public confidence. Oversight and transparency are all the more important in light of my clients’ reporting about Mr. Jakes’ public records lawsuit and the Board’s opposition to that suit and considerable outlay.”

So far, the school district has not responded to the letter.

Note: Robb Harvey is a member of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Board of Directors.

What do you think?