Records Policy Sparks Suit

Source: News Herald

Loudon County residents Pat Hunter, Joanne Turner and Aileen Longmire have filed a lawsuit against the county and Loudon County Mayor Doyle Arp over his new policy concerning requests to see and copy public records. Arp is named in the suit individually and in his capacity as county mayor.

The new policy would require anyone requesting information to fill out a form in the mayor’s office and pay a minimum, upfront, nonrefundable fee of $25 plus 25 cents a page for any copies of county documents. If a request for documents takes Arp’s staff longer than an hour to research, the person requesting the information would pay an additional $25 per hour, if the fees are approved by county commission.

This proposed policy change has stirred controversy, not only locally, but statewide. Newspapers from Chattanooga to Jackson have published editorials condemning what they see as the mayor’s attempts to restrict access to public records. Hunter and Longmire have both spoken out against the policy at county meetings and Hunter indicated at the Sept. 18 county commission workshop that she was consulting an attorney about legal remedies. While the media has been squarely against the new policy, Arp said that the response he has gotten from citizens of the county has been overwhelmingly positive.

Hunter, a local activist who has complained about the new records policy since its inception, was contacted for a comment on her decision to be a party to the lawsuit but she declined comment on the advise of her attorney, J. Philip Harber of Clinton.

Turner, who is also a plantiff in the suit at first also declined to speak but when told that Arp was not backing down on the issue she did say, "We ain’t either." Contacted Sept. 22, the day after the lawsuit was filed in Chancery Court, Arp didn’t seem surprised by the suit and voiced no regrets about the records policy.

"I’m not going to expose personal information,” he stressed. “They don’t understand why they have to come to my office, they want to walk straight into someone else’s office, but you can’t do that because at any given time that stuff is spread out on tables.

“The girls who work there apprised me of the situation and they were uncomfortable with people just walking into the office up there. So I said you’re gonna come to my office and we’ll get the proper person to look at that stuff. And that’s just the way it’s gonna be until the judge says otherwise ‘cause I’ve read the law, too, and I don’t think they’re entitled to walk in when we have personal information laying out on those tables there. I don’t even do that," said Arp.

The lawsuit points out the change in policy and declares proposed fees far exceed what is allowed by state law. The document goes into detail about statements made by Arp to local media.

"Arp has stated that the reason for the new rules ... is because of what he calls the ‘Triple A Club - Always Against Anything,’" and "Arp claims that the ‘Triple A Club is ‘just being nosy,’" the suit states. The lawsuit goes on to note at the Sept. 18 county commission workshop Arp directed officials to shred copies of billing records from County Attorney Harvey Sproul, which Arp didn’t want released to the public.

Arp said at the meeting he wanted commissioners to shred their copies of Sproul’s bill because the papers contained personal information, such as Social Security numbers, of county employees and he was trying to protect their privacy.

"There’s federal privacy laws that say you can’t look at that stuff when you want to, they have to be whited out," explained Arp. The plaintiffs are requesting the courts decide if the policy is legal, what if any fees are "reasonable" under the circumstances and to award attorney’s fees for the plaintiffs. Arp and the county have 30 days from the filing date, Sept. 21, to answer the petition.

Arp expressed no regrets about the policy."We’ve never kept anybody from looking at anything. If you check with the people who actually use our office we have one of the most courteous staffs in the State of Tennessee. I’m not concerned about it; I wish they [those who filed the suit] had something better to do," said the mayor.

As to his plan to deal with the suit Arp concluded, "Once counsel looks at it we’ll get a game plan. I’ve never refused paperwork for anybody except where the privacy part of it is concerned. I will continue to do that because I don’t particularly want to go to jail for releasing information someone is not entitled to."