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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, August 2, 2019

Gardenhire pushes for accountability under Open Records Law




State Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) recently told a group from the Tennessee Press Association that he will continue to push for public accountability and an end to any secret lawsuit settlements made by Tennessee government or quasi-governmental entities.

Gardenhire sought the assistance of Tennessee Open Records Counsel Lee Pope and State Attorney General Herbert Slatery in compelling parties to the John Doe v. the Hamilton County Department of Education lawsuit to unveil the amount paid to one of the victims in the Ooltewah High School rape case.

The amount was sealed under an agreement reached by the Board of Education’s insurer, Tennessee Risk Management Trust, which provides insurance services to public entities in the state.

“The public has a right to know about settlements being made involving governmental entities, especially when it involves our public schools,” says Gardenhire, who chaired the General Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on Open Records.

“We cannot allow governmental entities to hide behind their insurer in making secret settlements. There is no accountability to the public when this occurs. They must follow the law.”

In a letter issued in May, State Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter told parties to the lawsuit that “it is well-settled law in Tennessee that governmental entities cannot enter into confidential settlement agreements that are not subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act.”

She went on to say “refusal to disclose such settlement agreements in response to a request under the Act constitutes ‘bad faith’ for purposes of an award of attorney’s fees.”

The parties were asked to produce the records within the seven business-day time period set out under the Act which prompted the release of the settlement amount.

Gardenhire says all Tennessee courts, governmental attorneys and school boards should be familiar with the Public Records Act, so there’s no question regarding its requirements.

“There should have been no question as to whether or not this information should be kept from the public, Gardenhire added. “What happened in the aftermath of the Ooltewah rape case perpetuated the secrecy and public distrust surrounding the case because it was mishandled.

“It shouldn’t have taken a demand letter and an explanation regarding the consequences from the attorney general when the law is clear that the public has a right to know.

“We also need to ensure our school boards and their attorneys are proactive in understanding all procedures regarding state law in these matters.”

Source: Gardenhire