After eight months of delay, officials with the city of Gatlinburg and Sevier County say they will release public records related to the November 2016 fire that killed 14 people. (Read story in Knoxville News Sentinel)
It’s worth contemplating whether they would be doing this if not for the continued pressure of citizens and the state’s news media.
Many of the Gatlinburg fire records requested are basic: Incident reports, E-911 call recordings and emergency radio traffic. Citizens still question why an evacuation wasn’t ordered, or at least wasn’t ordered until the fire was already burning down structures. And so far, the answers from officials just haven’t seemed enough.
Citizens deserve to know the facts. The right to access public records — which the law says should be released promptly — is how citizens can keep a check on their own government. In the end, if policies need to be changed in relation to who, when and how evacuations are ordered, if emergency management officials need better training, if more money is requested to “fix” problems — understanding by citizens of what happened allows them to participate in an informed way in their city, county and state government.
Democracy doesn’t work in an information vacuum.
The county mayor said in the Knoxville News Sentinel article that “he always wanted to release the records…”
I find that hard to believe. If any government official at the local or state level wanted to release the records, they could and should have challenged the thin argument that a 911 recording of a resident asking about the fire would jeopardize prosecution.
Instead, they waited. And kept trying to shore up the false argument that public knowledge of such records would damage the juvenile case. We learned later that this directly conflicted with the juvenile court judge’s order regarding public records in the case. (I detail that here.)
In the end, I think, mostly, that government officials did not want to be second-guessed. It was a tragedy. Everyone worked hard. Blaming others doesn’t bring back people or homes. Maybe they wanted to stall or avoid litigation.
But they missed an important point. When it comes to government and what government does, the ultimate responsibility lies with the governed.
Certainly in this case when it came to enforcing the public’s right to know, no one within government seemed willing to take a stand.
(UPDATE 8-7-17: The county mayor of Sevier County, Larry Waters, contacted me this morning to reiterate that he always wanted to release the records, but felt compelled to follow the advice of the county attorney, which was to not release the records in light of the district attorney’s request. It was not my intention to say that Mr. Waters is or was dishonest or that he lied, as he apparently felt I did. Instead, I intended to point out that the stated desire to release the public records was not reflected by his own actions – or any other government official in charge of the records – that could have resulted in release months ago.)
Read the Knoxville News Story: Gatlinburg, Sevier County to release wildfire records.
And some past coverage as well: