Since coming to work at the LaFollette Press, I have had the opportunity to cover different types of stories.
This has included local government. It has been a learning experience.
One unfortunate side to this job, however, is conflict does sometimes arise. At times, people are reluctant to answer my questions. Occasionally they appear to believe reporters are out to get them. This is not true.
But my job is to ask people questions, especially public officials. When a public official is reluctant to answer questions, it makes me wonder what are they possibly hiding.
I mention this because of some recent events surrounding the LaFollette City Council and interim city administrator Cade Sexton. Since I began covering the council, Sexton has been helpful in answering questions I have about whatever may be on the council’s agenda for the month.
However, there have been a couple exceptions to this as of late.
In September, Sexton recommended the council fire a 16-year public works employee. When questioned about his recommendation, Sexton had no comment.
“The powers that be decided it was no longer beneficial for him to be an employee,” was all Public Works Department Head Jim Mullens was willing to say at the time.
At the LaFollette City Council’s Oct. 24 workshop, one of the agenda items was the termination of a fire fighter. Again, Sexton would not comment. At the meeting that followed on Nov. 1, this item was still on the agenda, but wasn’t discussed. Sexton told me not to worry about it because the fire fighter had resigned.
I had to file a Freedom of Information Act form to get the personnel file to see how this case was handled. Only after such arm-twisting did I begrudgingly receive information regarding the fire fighter’s case.
This “arm twisting,” included having the FOIA form returned to me with refusal to comply on the grounds of HIPPA law. I had discussed the information I wanted, and it was clear I wasn’t interested in medical information. To be sure I was correct in my request a call was placed to the Tennessee Press Association Attorney. Having been reaffirmed the request was correct but Sexton’s refusal wasn’t the FOIA was refilled.
I have no special interest in this department or the persons involved. But when the interim city administrator will not answer questions regarding public information it makes alarms go off. There is an employee handbook that outlines how disciplinary action is supposed to be handled before a recommendation for dismissal to the council is made. If the city administrator or department heads aren’t talking about how this is being followed on a case by case basis, there is no way to know that there are no abuses.
As it turns out, the proper forms were executed. The fire chief had requested this employee’s dismissal in a memorandum to Sexton. He cited violations of rules that qualify as reasons for dismissal according to the city of LaFollette’s handbook. The city administrator is able to recommend an employee’s dismissal based on such grounds according to the handbook.
If there is nothing to hide, why act like there’s something to hide? Asking a few simple questions was made extremely difficult.