Tennessee county suspends policy to destroy records requests

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CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee county has paused a policy to destroy public records requests after a newspaper highlighted the practice.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports Hamilton County officials on Friday suspended the policy after public pressure from the County Commission and a proposed bill from members of the Tennessee Legislature.

The move came less than a week after a report from the newspaper detailed the establishment of a policy in October allowing the Hamilton County Attorney's Office to destroy public record requests and responses to them after 30 days.

The policy resulted in the destruction of an unknown number of records requested by the newspaper two months earlier, the Times Free Press reported. The policy has been paused by the county mayor.

"I believe in transparency and I support the public knowing, obviously, and anything we can do to make public documentation available, we're going to do it," Mayor Jim Coppinger said. “We are working to figure out how exactly we can be more involved and form better policy to support those goals.”

Representatives of the paper, the county mayor's office and county attorney's office have met to discuss the retrieval of destroyed records.

The mayor is instructing departments to not destroy public records requests and the responses after 30 days, Assistant Administrator of Finance Lee Brouner wrote in an email Friday.

Requests and responses should be retained “until further study and consideration of the appropriate retention period for such requests,” Brouner wrote.

The issue came to light as Times Free Press reporter Sarah Grace Taylor was trying to see whether the county attorney's office was denying public records requests without a good reason, she said. To that end, she asked in August to see all incoming records requests for the past year along with the office's responses.

Taylor suspected the office might be unlawfully denying requests after Dana Beltramo, the records coordinator for the attorney's office, told her that all communications with that office were privileged and off-limits, Taylor said.

“I wanted to see if they were really denying all requests,” she said, adding that before she could find out, the office destroyed many of the records.

Initially, Beltramo responded to Taylor's request by asking her to pay $717 for about 1,500 pages of records, Taylor said. In Tennessee, officials can charge money to make copies of records, but they are not allowed to charge someone to simply look at records, which is what Taylor was requesting.

She refused to pay.

“It went back and forth for several weeks,” she said. “I kept hearing from different county officials that they were going to work it out.”

In the meantime, Beltramo sought and received permission at an Oct. 2 meeting of the Hamilton County Public Records Commission to destroy all records requests and responses after 30 days. Taylor said she was unaware of the meeting or the new policy and continued to seek the records without knowing they had been destroyed.

After being made aware that some records responsive to the request had been destroyed almost four months before, the paper published a story, spurring state legislators from the area to file a bill intended to quell future records issues.

Coppinger, the mayor, said he is working to improve the county's overall records policy.

"What we did today was basically try to prevent the confusion of mistakes that have happened from happening again," the mayor said.

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