Electronic files: The incompetent city's last refuge
Putnam Pit editor

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- Why does the City of Cookeville refuse to provide computer files of parking violations?

We already know Lewis Coomer's tickets were fixed; we already know the city cannot collect its fines; we already know the court has no membrane of separation from the police department or city council. Why continue to fight?

Because officials cannot control what you learn when you have all the information in a useable form.

Here's an example of computer-assisted reporting that crossed the Associated Press wire over the weekend.

The AP cross-checked a U.S. Department of Agriculture database of tobacco owners and medical licensing records from the following 12 states where the
government administers tobacco price-support programs and found nearly 770 doctors and other health care workers who own tobacco-growing rights.

These doctors are in Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

The AP reported that apparent matches were confirmed through checks of property and other records, and phone interviews. Because of incomplete data, hundreds of other likely matches could not be confirmed.

The only benefit to government in withholding data in computer form is that the public remains uninformed. The cost of providing access to paper files is greater; the time of employees gathering the data is greater; the time it takes to go through the files is greater and the stories that result from paper files are less sophisticated.

The effort to withhold public records in electronic form also has another down side: It gets the city sued for withholding data in the form it is maintained.

Of all the illegal actions of the Cookeville government, none is more of an insult to honest citizens than the withholding of information in a way that reflects on the performance of public officials.

No matter what the government says, no matter how City Manager Jim Shipley or City Attorney T. Michael O'Mara phrase their perverted perspective, it is meant to keep YOU on the dark about the actions of government.

While police respond to complaints on Shipley's street to find the smell of marijuana hanging over streams of teen-agers leaving a party at his house, the power to prevent inspection of records has a particularly ominous  potential in the city manager's hands: He has a personal interest in withholding information that relates to information about his own property.

This is such a fundamental violation of open government that Shipley should step down and the records should be opened to all who wonder why he has fought so hard to hide information.

Shame on you, Mr. Shipley.

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