45 outstanding tickets were voided
The information, not revealed at first by police, was
obtained during a telephone conversation with Sheila Holloway of the Cookeville
Police Department, recorded with her knowledge and agreement.
After numerous phone calls and trips to Cookeville's offices for the correct records -- persistence City Manager Jim Shipley calls "harassment" and "intimidation" of public employees because city employees don't like to have to answer requests for records right away -- The Pit learned that 41 pages of documents handed over to The Pit by police were trash. Meanwhile, the city refuses to give The Putnam Pit computer data in its electronic form. Thus, under City Manager Jim Shipley and City Attorney T. Michael O'Mara, the city can smply hand out garbage in response to open records requests, and only have to give the real material if they get caught.
The first set of "public records" obtained by The Pit made it seem that Coomer had only been cited twice. Pursuing factual records after learning the ones offered were no good, The Pit learned that Tennessee license plate HDZ200, registered to Lewis Coomer, had been cited not twice but 45 times between Jan. 17, 1992 and Dec. 6, 1993.
"He's never paid," Holloway said. "One of them is outstanding."
By far, public officials and lawyers are the most common violators and least likely to pay, the record shows, although we can't be sure the city is not giving us false information and we will therefore not quote from it.
However, among those we have double checked:
To compound the problem, the police department has not sent out warning letters to scofflaws for more than a year, and Chief Bill Benson said he had no policy about collecting the money. He said he has paid a contested ticket for a disgruntled citizen himself, and at one point when a transition was underway to introduce parking meters there was some confusion and many tickets were changed to warnings. He said he had no policy about allowing tickets to be changed to warnings.
Well, that's good news for Lewis Coomer. But for those who pay their tickets and have no connections, they're feeling a little chiseled right now.
Lt. Nathan Honeycutt, who oversees the department's computer system, said the Coomer situation "doesn't sound like an everyday occurrence."
But Honeycutt blamed an old computer system, pieced together through the years with program-as-you-go makeshift problem solving, and bad data entry by former employees.
To complicate matters, citations are logged by license numbers and not all are matched to names, police officials said.
O'Mara and City Manager Jim Shipley's on-going attempts to keep information from The Pit have resulted in the filing of a federal civil rights suit against the city, O'Mara and Shipley. In this case, their efforts cost the city money it would have taken in from fines.
But it's no surprise that the city would rather pay 10 times more in legal fees than it would cost to provide the records. In fact, even the civil rights suit hasn't tempered their authority fixation. Since the federal suit was filed, the city has:
Cookeville's reluctance to make its records available on tape or diskette forces employees to use their time doing what reporters could do at no cost to taxpayers, and would free the city from the perception that it lacks the commitment, competence or will to operate in the open.
O'Mara, who drags the city into these situations then makes $125 an hour dealing with the problems he causes, denied he was motivated by personal animosity, but other Cookeville residents have heard him express the contrary.
"We're not being arbitrary," O'Mara told another local lawyer who swore out an affidavit. "We just don't want Geoff Davidian to have the records."
And if we don't get them, you don't get them.