Hiding hospital facts from voters
"If the law supposes that," Charles Dickens had Mr. Bumble say in Oliver Twist, "the law is a ass, a idiot." What would Mr. Bumble say of the law as it's interpreted by the Cookeville city attorney's office?
That question came to mind when Geoff Davidian, publisher of The Putnam Pit, had the door slammed in his face when he tried to look at some records generated by the city of Cookeville and Cookeville General Hospital. The excuse was that public records weren't open to him, despite Tennessee's public records law.
That law is designed to help the public keep tabs on how officials they've elected are performing on their behalf. But individual citizens rarely can spend hours in a clerk's office sifting through records, and most lack the expertise to do it. They have to rely on news people for that.
That's part of the "watchdog function" of the press.
In this case, the watchdog is a pit bull -- The Putnam Pit.
Of immediate interest to Davidian is information that might help voters make a decision on the council's efforts to divest the city of Cookeville General Hospital. Two questions are particularly important: Who stands to gain? Who stands to lose?
Davidian thinks the answers may be squirreled away in City Manager James Shipley's files. Davidian also wants a look at hospital files to find out whether Hospital Administrator Mike Mayes fudged the truth about his previous employment in applying for his present job. City Attorney Thomas Michael O'Mara, who represents both city and hospital, says they can bar Davidian from looking at the records.
You can find the open records law in the Tennessee Code, Section 10-7-503(a). It mandates that
"All state, county and municipal records . . . shall at all times during business hours, be open for personal inspection by any citizen of Tennessee."
That's pretty clear language: public records are the public's business. However, O'Mara apparently interprets the language to mean only citizens of Tennessee can have access to public records, although Davidian publishes a newspaper in Tennessee.
Can't you just imagine how Mr. Bumble would bluster at that? Especially since Article 4, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution states that a citizen of one state who goes into another is entitled to all of that state's "privileges and immunities." The 14th Amendment goes even further and forbids any state from abridging the "privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States."
Nevertheless, O'Mara is holding his ground. Stonewalling, some would call it. So Davidian has gone to Chancery Court to see if the Constitution means in Tennessee what it means in other states and if the records should be open.
There's some irony in all this. Davidian did O'Mara a favor in forcing open records of O'Mara's billings to the city of Cookeville. He found that the city attorney had shorted himself by $776.
Let's hope the court gives the lie to Mr. Bumble and finds O'Mara is no better at interpreting the law than he is at doing arithmetic. Otherwise, the only one likely to benefit from O'Mara's position is O'Mara himself, who will bill the city -- and taxpayers -- for keeping the same citizens in the dark.
At $125 an hour, let's see how much he charges you to keep you from knowing the truth.
[Larry Lorenz is a professor of journalism at Loyola University New
Orleans, and hosts the weekly New Orleans news-in-review program, Informed