City of Griffin releases records to The GRIP after seven-month dispute

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::

After refusing since Feb. 3 to produce certain personnel records sought in an Open Records request submitted by The GRIP Publisher Sheila Mathews, the city of Griffin on Sept. 1 reversed that long held decision and released the exempted documents.

At the crux of the dispute were the pre-employment computer voice stress analysis and psychological evaluation – or Personnel Evaluation Profile – of Tyler Cooper, a former patrol officer of the Griffin Police Department.

GPD Chief Mike Yates has been involved from the beginning of the dispute, as he was the person responsible for determining which records would be released pursuant to The GRIP’s Open Records request.

Yates initially cited two criteria for withholding Cooper’s CVSA and psychological evaluation – the federal Employee Polygraph Protection Act and HIPAA, respectively.

The GRIP protested not only the basis of withholding the records, but also $40 of the total fee assessed by the city of Griffin based on the expenditure of Yates’ time.

The Georgia Open Records Act requires agencies to “utilize the most economical means reasonably calculated to identify and produce responsive, non-excluded documents,” and stipulates that fees “shall not exceed the prorated hourly salary of the lowest paid full-time employee who, in the reasonable discretion of the custodian of the records, has the necessary skill and training to perform the request; provided, however, that no charge shall be made for the first quarter hour.”

Diane Martin, who the city legally identifies as one of its two assistant Open Records clerks, is Yates administrative assistant with well more than ten years’ experience producing records responsive to Open Records requests.

However, in this instance, city officials argued that Yates is in fact the lowest paid employee with the knowledge of the federal laws under which the information The GRIP requested was exempt from release.

The GRIP maintained its argument that the fee was wrongly assessed because the federal laws of which Yates had expert knowledge were nonapplicable to the Open Records request in dispute.

To support its position, The GRIP provided multiple resources in its long-term effort to obtain the requested information.

A letter to the editor penned by Griffin City Manager Kenny Smith – which was also emailed to all seven sitting city commissioners – as well as The GRIP’s response and further actions taken against Sheila Mathews can be read here: https://the-grip.net/2017/06/29/city-manager-responds-to-open-records-stand-off/

Yates later alleged additional grounds to support his position that the records were exempt from release. One such argument was that to release the records could have compromised the identify of a confidential source in an internal investigation. However, when The GRIP submitted an Open Records request for that investigation’s case number, the city responded that it did not exist.

Despite seven months of repeated efforts, The GRIP was repeatedly denied the requested records until Sept. 1, when they were produced via an email that read, “Sheila, please accept this supplemental response to your Open Records Act request of February 3, seeking the following information on Tyler Cooper, then of the Griffin Police Department.

“The employee personnel record; All records pertaining to the hiring process including test information, evaluation information, referrals and/or recommendations and interviews; All FTO records to include any and all reviews; All performance reviews; All disciplinary records.”

We provided everything in our initial response, except for the attached records, a PEP and Voice Stress Analysis, which we cited as exemptible under O.C.G.A. 50-18-72 (1), (2) and (7). Our City Attorney has opined that these particular records, cannot, in fact, be exempted and they are provided herewith. The cost for provision of this information is $2.80 (28 pages at $.10 per copy), payable to the City of Griffin, P.O. Box T, Griffin, GA 30224.”

The GRIP has attempted to learn the catalyst for the change in the city’s stance, but that information has not been forthcoming.

Publisher’s note: The GRIP will this week publish an article online at http://www.the-grip.net detailing the information received in the long sought after public records.

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