A Tennessee newspaper won an important ruling last week in a lawsuit that seeks to force the city of Knoxville to turn over records about its search for a police chief.
Ruling on Tuesday, Chancellor John Weaver said the city cannot block the Knoxville News Sentinel from questioning officials under oath about the search, the paper reported.
The city took public input at the beginning of its search but hired the Police Executive Research Forum to conduct the candidate search at a cost of $43,000 instead of relying on its own human resources department.
Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon appointed a committee to review candidates, but required members who weren’t city employees to sign nondisclosure agreements agreeing not to discuss the hiring process.
The Police Executive Research Forum shared applications with the city only by methods that did not create documents, which must be shared with the public under Tennessee open records laws. The company set up interviews by Zoom, the online teleconference system, and showed candidates’ resumes and other documents within the Zoom.
Chris McCarty, a private attorney hired by the city, admitted at an earlier hearing that Knoxville hired the third party search firm in order to get around open records laws.
The city has justified the secrecy with claims that releasing information about the candidates could hurt their careers, but research by the newspaper found no such effect. For police chief searches handled by the same company, none of the candidates who were publicly identified lost their job or were demoted. Instead, they either stayed at the same job or were hired as chiefs elsewhere within a year or two, the paper found.
Kincannon selected Paul Noel, a deputy chief from the New Orleans Police Department, as the new chief. He was sworn into office in June. The city has said repeatedly that it has no records of the other candidates or finalists. However, the agreement with the Police Executive Research Forum explicitly allows Kincannon to request the records for up to three years.
“We’ve been persistent in pushing for your right to know how critical decisions are made by those you elected,” Joel Christopher, Knox News executive editor, said in response to the latest ruling. “We’re pleased to see a ruling that advances accountability and transparency from the mayor’s office.”
A spokesperson for the city declined to comment on the ruling.
Republished with permission from The Associated Press.