public records

How Knoxville public radio got the White House coronavirus report Gov. Lee didn’t want to release

Gov. Bill Lee arrives for a press conference on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee ranked fourth worst in the country for COVID-19 related deaths per 100,000, according to a White House report that Gov. Bill Lee didn’t want to release to the public. The report was obtained under public records laws by a Knoxville public radio station.

The report took a circuitous path toward becoming public. The Center for Public Integrity in Washington reported about it’s existence last week, and the TNJ: On the Hill blog posted about the finding that Tennessee had slid into the “red zone” of 24 states most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. That led another reporter to ask the governor about the report (and the related refusal to make it public) during his weekly press conference.

Lee responded that not all the of the details in the White House report are up to date and that he wanted to limited the sources of information about the outbreak.

“Multiple streams of data from multiple places is not helpful to people,” Lee said.

While the Lee administration didn’t want to share the White House report with the media, it did send copies to health officials around the state. That’s where WUOT-FM, the public radio station in Knoxville, comes in.

The station requested a copy from the Knox County Health Department. Director Martha Buchanan said since she shared the report with the county Board of Health, a a decision-making body, it became subject to Tennessee open records laws.

The report includes a recommendation to impose a statewide mask mandate, which is something Lee has decided to leave to county mayors and health departments.

The report says Tennessee saw a 41% spike in new coronavirus cases between Oct. 4 and Oct. 11, and a 32% increase in COVID-19 related deaths over the period. At the same time, the number of tests being conducted around the state has dropped. The sharpest increases in coronavirus cases has occurred in Putnam, Wilson, and Sullivan counties, according to the White House.

Read the full WUOT and the White House report on Tennessee report here.

Haile seeks open government assistance with effort to block ‘malicious’ records requests

Senate GOP leaders hold weekly press gaggle on Jan. 18, 2018. From left are Sens. Mark Norris, Randy McNally, Bo Watson and Ferrell Haile. (Photo credit: Schelzig, Tennessee Journal.

Sen. Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) is asking for help from the Tennessee Advisory Council on Open Government to craft legislation aimed at blocking abusive public records requests. Haile has introduced a bill aimed at accomplishing that goal, but his efforts have foundered amid concerns that a new law would also affect the ability of citizens, the media, and researchers to obtain public records.

Here is the full release from Haile:

NASHVILLE – Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin) said today he has asked the Tennessee Advisory Council on Open Government to review legislation he is sponsoring to discourage malicious abuse of Tennessee’s public records requests process. Haile sponsored legislation during the 2020 session of the Tennessee General Assembly to curtail the practice and plans to reintroduce it when the legislature convenes in January.

He is asking for the Council’s input to protect the integrity of Tennessee’s open record law, while preventing repeated abuse when requests serve no purpose other than to harass local governments and their employees.

“We need open government and this legislation is not intended in any way to interfere with our public records request process or to discourage such requests,” said Senator Haile. “This legislation is about the few people who abuse our public record laws to bully and harass government agencies by repeatedly making requests that any reasonable person would deem has no purpose except for harassment. The legislation will have no effect on other citizens. Also, media outlets, academic researchers, investigators, or those independently engaged in gathering information for publication or broadcast are exempt from provisions of the bill.”

The legislation allows a records custodian to seek an injunction against an individual who makes six or more requests that constitutes harassment within a one-year period after providing the requestor with notice after the fifth such request. Harassment is defined as conduct that is not made for any legitimate purpose and is made maliciously or seriously abuses, intimidates, threatens, or harasses. The public records custodian must petition the court in such cases in the appropriate jurisdiction for an order enjoining the person from making further requests. A court can find that an individual’s record request constitutes harassment and enjoin a person from requesting records for up to a year.

A records custodian who petitions a court for an injunction must also provide a written report to the Office of Open Records Counsel that includes a copy of the petition and any injunction or orders issued by the court. It will also become part of the Counsel’s annual report to further track these cases and ensure the integrity of the state’s open records law remains in tact. The measure will sunset in 2024 when it will be reevaluated for that purpose.

“Honest inquires are what our open records law is meant to protect,” added Haile. “The proposal is not meant to discourage citizens from requesting information, nor is it intended for a county attorney or city attorney to use this against folks who are irritated with someone or upset with some aspect of their government. This is a positive appeal that will help those who seek to have open government and it will help prevent abuse of those who utilize our public records process as a tool to harass those who work for us.”