Monday, November 16, 2015

Judge rules Sumner County Schools violated public records law, orders it to stop

From left: Citizen Ken Jakes and Sumner Schools attorneys Todd Presnell and Jim Fuqua listen the judge's ruling that the school district violated the Tennessee Public Records Act.
Seated 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.

by Deborah Fisher, Reposted from Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, GALLATIN Nearly 20 months after citizen Ken Jakes requested to see the Sumner County Schools public records policy, Sumner County Judge Dee Gay ruled today that the school district violated Tennessee Public Records law by withholding it. He ordered the district to stop its practices and adopt a new policy for dealing with public records requests.

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.

Tennessean reporter Jennifer Easton gets reaction from Ken Jakes after his victory in court.
Gallatin News Examiner reporter Jennifer Easton 
gets reaction from Ken Jakes after his victory in court.
Sumner Schools has spent thousands of dollars defending its policy. Through February 2015, it spent nearly $83,000 for an outside law firm on the case. That doesn’t include the nine most recent months of work, including during the trial in July. The Gallatin News Examiner requested to see how much the case had cost the district to date, but the school district said it has not received any additional bills since February. It declined to explain why.

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.”

Judge 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.
…”Both the email and the phone message were ‘sufficiently detailed to enable the custodian to identify the specific records requested’ – a request for the records policy for the Board of Education. Under the TPRA, that is all that is required to make a request to inspect public records,” Gay said.

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

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