Gathering local government salaries from across Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee was not only an arduous exercise of fiscal oversight for this newspaper, but also showed that localities routinely fail to follow open records laws.
The Bristol Herald Courier set out more than a year ago to collect salary data from what ended up being 65 local jurisdictions funded by taxpayers.
Every town, city, county and school system in an 11-county, two-state region – an area with a collective land mass larger than the entire state of Connecticut – was compiled for comparison purposes.
But not without a futile fight from many jurisdictions.
Johnson City never fully complied with our request under the Tennessee Public Records Act; instead of releasing first names, as the law requires, Johnson City disclosed first initials.
It also took Johnson City more than four months to even release the salaries of its city employees.
“Tennessee law says records in the hands of government shall be open for inspection during business hours and cannot be withheld unless there is a specific law that makes it confidential,” said Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. “It’s assumed that means immediate release, but there is not a specific limit on how much time a custodian has to respond or to provide the information.”
An open government study committee has recommended that Tennessee implement a four-day time frame for compliance with the Public Records Act.
“Simple, small requests are to be immediate,” Gibson wrote in an e-mail. “In others the record keeper must grant the request or within 4 days cite a specific exemption in the law that allows the information to be withheld or explain why the record can’t be produced within the 4-day period.”As Johnson City finally released the salary records, the city also tried to engage in a bit of horse trading.
See the whole series -- and access the database -- here.