By Chas Sisk | The Tennessean
Gov. Bill Haslam suggested his administration would not back away from its $55,000 tab to produce records from the Department of Children's Services, even after the agency's new leader said the estimate seemed "a little high."
Haslam said during and after a luncheon appearance Thursday before the Tennessee Press Association that news organizations brought the issue on themselves by refusing to drop their suit calling for disclosure of the case files of children who have died after being brought to the attention of child welfare workers.
The records have not yet been made public, and no organization has been billed for their release, Haslam said. He dismissed a suggestion that, as governor, he could decide himself to waive or reduce the fees.
"That's what the chancellor will determine," Haslam said. "Should we waive it for everything that comes down the road?"
Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Carol McCoy ruled last month that DCS must release the forms its employees fill out when a child dies, and she said the department must provide redacted copies of all files on children who die.
The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by The Tennessean and joined by other media outlets, including WBIR, seeking greater access to records on child fatalities. McCoy said the records should be public under state law and ruled that the state must pay newspapers' court costs for pursuing the case.
Haslam referred to those legal expenses and blamed media outlets for the high bill, saying they could have narrowed their request. He said lawyers for the plaintiffs refused to settle the case before it went to court.
"There was a corporate decision made to go to trial on this," Haslam said. "The chancellor came in and what she said, we're fine with. She's the one that said tell us what it will cost. It's in her seat."
Lauran Sturm, an attorney for the Waller law firm who worked on the case, said in a presentation to the Tennessee Press Association earlier in the morning that lawyers filed a broad request because they had not been given enough information about what the files contain.
"We wanted information that fell into specific categories," Sturm said. "We didn't have a good idea or a good sense of what might actually be in the files. We submitted a broad request so that we could get as much as we could and decide what we needed from there."
The state has estimated that it will take nearly 1,800 labor hours to produce the records in question. DCS also says it will need to purchase more than $500 worth of correction tape to mask confidential data, and that the records will need to be driven more than 14,000 miles to and from local offices.
Interim DCS Commissioner Jim Henry, who stepped in after Kate O'Day resigned Tuesday, said in a Wednesday meeting of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that the department would review the estimate.
But Haslam told the Tennessee Press Association, a trade organization for journalists, that the records would fill the ballroom where he spoke Thursday morning "times five."
"It's now the court's decision to decide what happens next," he said. "We haven't sent anybody a bill.
"Remember how we got here," he added. "The decision was made, 'We'll go to court.' I don't know the cost for that, but I bet it was healthy."
Adam Tamburin contributed to this report.