Haslam hides outsourcing documents behind ‘privilege’

Gov. Bill Haslam’s office has declined to release three documents relating to his controversial building-management outsourcing project, reports Richard Locker. The administration cites a “deliberative process privilege” for high government officials as an exemption to the state’s public records law.

In response to a public records request, the governor’s office released 72 pages of copies of emails to and from Greg Adams, the state’s chief operating officer. But an accompanying letter from the governor’s deputy legal counsel said the office is withholding three Adams documents based on the exemption cited in four state and federal court rulings.

The Tennessee Public Records Act statute itself contains no such exemption, but court rulings can also make law. The governor’s office has previously asserted a deliberative process exemption for records in the governor’s possession but this is believed the first time the “privilege” been asserted for records of other top state officials. The legal counsel did not disclose whether the documents were correspondence between Adams and the governor, which would fall in line with previous citations of the exemption.

The emails that were made available this week indicate that the governor’s team overseeing the massive facilities-management outsourcing project discussed how to respond to a request by state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) for information on how the governor planned to proceed with the project, and about the proper messaging to explain it to the public.

Another email showed that on the day news broke about the project’s existence, a consultant hired to help run the project, Mike Ledyard, acknowledged that it was a “mistake” to release the procurement document that initiated the process before the project team had “fully engaged” all “stakeholders” in the process — such as state higher education officials, whose campuses would comprise nearly two-thirds of the total property under consideration for privatized management and operations.

Previously released documents show that state officials quietly began working on the project to outsource the management and operations of virtually all state owned property — including parks, prisons, hospitals and college and university campuses — last November. But it did not publicly surface until Aug. 17, a week after the state procurement office posted on its website a “request for information” to potential vendors interested in state contracts to manage and operate facilities.

“I made the mistake of allowing the RFI to be released without considering that we had not fully engaged all members and stakeholders in the process,” Ledyard wrote. “Our team needs to be more proactive in communicating with our stakeholders.”

Within days, UT President Joe DiPietro and Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan met with Adams to raise concerns and whether colleges and universities can withdraw from participating.