left to right: Citizen Ken Jakes, Sumner Schools attorney |
Jim Fuqua, school communications official Jeremy Johnson
and attorney Todd Presnell listen to the judge’s ruling that
the school district violated the Tennessee Public Records Act.
The school’s attorney asked for a 30-day stay on the judge’s order, which Gay granted, while the school district considers whether it will appeal the judge’s decision.
The order was a win for Jakes, a frequent requester of public records. Jakes filed the suit April 9, 2014, after the school district told him they would not accept his records request which he emailed on March 21, 2014, and followed up with a phone message. The school district contended it could reject the request because it had a local policy that all records requests must be made in person or in writing and mailed through the U.S. Postal Service.
|Gallatin News Examiner reporter Jennifer Easton |
gets reaction from Ken Jakes after his victory in court.
Jakes said he has spent about $10,000 of his own money to sue the district, maintaining all along that the school district was violating the Tennessee Public Records Act and intentionally making it difficult for citizens to get public records.
Judge Gay in his ruling on Friday sided with Jakes’ arguments, saying the law made it clear that governmental entities could not put form over substance in trying to regulate how a person makes a public records request.
“From the TPRA (Tennessee Public Records Act) and the BPG (Best Practices Guidelines on the Office of Open Records Counsel’s website), it is very clear to this Court that in the application of the TPRA that openness and the accessibility of non-exempt records are favored. It is also very clear that the law has placed no restriction on the form or the format of a request for inspection of public records other than: (1) a request for inspection or viewing cannot be required to be initiated by a written request; (2) any request for inspection of a public record shall be sufficiently detailed to enable the record custodian to identify the specific records.”
Dee Gay, a criminal court judge, took the case after the Sumner |
County Chancellor was recused because he had family members employed
by the school district.
Read Gay’s ruling here: Judge Dee Gay’s ruling in the public records case against Sumner County Schools.
While Gay took the school district to task for its policy — at one point stating that, “We no longer live in a Pony Express world” — he declined to rule that the school district’s denial was willful.
If Gay had found the school district had willfully refused to provide the public record, Jakes would have been eligible for an award of attorneys’ fees. Instead, Gay noted that the school district’s attorney, Jim Fuqua, “sought the advice of the Open Records Counsel concerning the public records request for inspection in this case. The advice requested was whether the Defendant should accept the request for inspection of public records by email.”
…”The Court finds that there was no showing of an unwillingness to produce a particular record, but rather involved a question or concern of the proper procedure to follow by the Defendant in accepting a request for inspection.”
In Gay’s order, he gave the school district until March 1, 2016 to bring its open records request for inspection policy into compliance with the law.
Attorney Todd Presnell with Bradley Arant Boult Cummings represented the school district. Attorney Kirk Clements with Haynes Freeman & Bracey represented Jakes.
For coverage from the July trial, read:
Public records practices at Sumner County Schools under scrutiny at trial
Judge says Sumner County Schools denied public records request, but not willful