City Denies Access to Public Records: Newspaper Delays Lawsuit in Hopes City Will Comply With State Law

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Access to public records that would show how taxpayer dollars were spent – and how much – was denied by city officials following multiple requests over the past two months.

Additionally, a verbal request at the January 8, 2019 City Council still resulted in no definite time line for when the taxpayer documents would be available for review.

The Lewis County Herald initially requested an accounting of the Christmas in Hohenwald festival in mid-November.  City officials have, for the four years of the event, commented about donations received and a small amount of tax dollars used to fund the festival.

Sales tax revenues have reportedly increased for the month of December over the past few years, an increase that could directly correlate with the event.

But when asked for an accounting, only one year of records were released in a specially prepared document by City Recorder Kyle Hamm Tennessee State law allows any citizen to request to view, and make copies of, any public document, including how tax dollars are being utilized by elected and appointed officials.

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“The custodian of a public record or the custodian’s designee shall promptly make available for inspection any public record not specifically exempt from disclosure” states TCA 10-7-503(a)(2)(B).

Tennessee law further states the governing entity, in this case the City of Hohenwald, had seven business days, either to produce the records or to submit in writing reasons for denial.

Not providing the documents constitutes denial.

No access has been given to the Lewis County Herald to view the records and it had been 63 days since the initial request at press time Tuesday.

“This is real basic information in terms of expenditures by a government,” Deb Fisher of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government commented in a telephone interview Tuesday.  “This is not even controversial.”

“A culture of secretiveness is contrary to government in America,” Executive Director Fisher added.  “There is no reason why how much they spent should be hidden from the public.”

Here is what we know

When asked in 2017, EC&D Coordinator Helen Ozier, who works closely with Mayor Danny McKnight on the project, stated, “I am floored at the contributions and volunteerism.”  Character costumes have been purchased, and lights and  decorations have been acquired, either by purchase or donation.  The amount of taxpayer money used has not been disclosed.

A trolley was designed and constructed by city employees under the leadership of Codes Enforcer Brad Rasbury.  When asked, donations were said to have funded the trolley.

In 2018, an unofficial report was that the city’s newest people-mover, a carriage, had been custom designed in Ethridge at the cost of $6,000.  The carriage frame was delivered sometime in September, after which Rasbury was seen at City Hall adding seating, lights, a sound system and decorations to the steel frame.

The horse drawn carriage was designed so it could also be pulled “55 miles per hour down the highway.”  It was to be used for Christmas in Hohenwald and for local and area Christmas parades. On that day, when asked the price, Ozier said, “Undisclosed at this time.”

Sometime later, a Facebook post showed employees of a local bank with a blank check dated November 16, 2018.  The check was for “carriage/trolley.”  Still no price tag was shared with taxpayers.

So how much have the holiday festivities actually cost taxpayers?

Time line for request

A verbal request to City Recorder Kyle Hamm November 12, 2018 was confirmed by text message.

Over the next two weeks, Mr. Hamm requested more time, once due to auditors working at City Hall.  The second time was Thanksgiving week and he reported having “the flu or a virus.”  The Herald graciously allowed more time.

On November 26, 2018, an official Freedom of Information Act Request was submitted and within seven days, Mr. Hamm provided a specially prepared document outlining expenses for 2017-18 fiscal year only.

The Herald was told the mayor questioned what type story was to be written.  A text sent to Mr. Hamm on November 30, 2018 assured that no harm was intended.  His response read, “I understand.  This is part of what the city is here for.  I can just speak for myself, but it’s no big deal.”

In December, a second Freedom of Information Act Request was sent in hopes of receiving the remaining, previously requested, expenses.

According to receipts from the U. S. Postal Service, the registered letters were received on December 27, 2018.

Seven business days later (allowing for days City Hall was closed for holidays), January 8, 2019, Editor & Publisher Hulon Dunn directed Managing Editor Becky J. Newbold to attend the City Council meeting and make the request known to the Council.

Mayor Danny McKnight responded to the request by saying the information could not be gathered in “one day or one week. “It is hard in the middle of everything and some of the information cannot be broken down.”

Mayor McKnight challenged the motives of the Lewis County Herald in requesting access to the public documents.

The motives do not matter.  These are public records, Newbold explained.

“Open records are crucial to our republic’s survival,” Newbold added.

“It is vague to compare [this city]…to the entire republic, sea to shining sea,” the mayor retorted, showing signs of agitation.

City Recorder Hamm interjected the city had sent the request to their attorney, Melanie Cagle, for review and that they now understood the newspaper requested all the records.

Mayor McKnight defended his position, claiming decorating for events is hard to breakdown to see “exactly what is spent.”

He added that employees’ time is kin to everybody,” the mayor began.

“I’m not going to apologize for the past seven days.  We can’t get it all together.”

Newbold pointed out that state law requires public information be available to taxpayers within seven business days and asked about the City’s filing system or storage methods.  No response was offered by the mayor or council.

Mayor McKnight stated the information would be available, but declined to indicate when.

Public input

“Being good stewards of tax payers dollars is not always an easy task,” Lewis County Commissioner Connie Sharp said Tuesday.  “I encourage folks to attend meetings and educate themselves on projects.  Find out how funds are spent and don’t be afraid to ask questions about the amounts of expenditures.  You may learn some valuable info on the investments of your tax dollars; and the necessity of why those funds were spent the way they were.  We are hearing the word ‘transparency’ a great deal in today’s political arena especially nationally.”

“I think transparency is the secret to effective government,” Terry Bunch, executive director of the Hohenwald Housing Authority said.  Bunch also is a former Lewis County Executive.  “Taxpayers ought to have the right to know where their money went.”

“Most Tennesseans enjoy a presumption of open government in their communities because those rights are written into the state Constitution’s Declaration of Rights, state statutes, and a litany of court cases,” said Frank Gibson, founder and former executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “It’s the only way people in a democracy can govern themselves.”

“The law says ‘public business cannot be conducted in secret.’ It also says ‘municipal records shall, at all times during business hours…be open for personal inspection by any citizen, and those in charge of the records shall not refuse such right of inspection.’

“When public officials deny public records requests or slow-walk citizens (and reporters) requesting public information it amounts to two things: it keeps voters from knowing the truth about how government officials are spending their hard-earned tax dollars, and it gives everybody cause to suspect the motives of the leaders who are abusing the law,” Gibson concluded.

“That’s not an unreasonable request,” State Senator Dr. Joey Hensley commented.  “It’s something I’d be interested in seeing.

“I believe in open records,” State Senator Dr. Hensley continued.  “Any public entity, city, county, school board, should have records open to the public.

Bordering on contumacious behavior, the mayor, recorder  and city council have opened the City of Hohenwald up to a lawsuit.  Realizing the tax payers of the City would foot the bill for an expensive court case, the management of the Herald has, for now, determined to wait in hope of receiving the information soon.

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