Judge OKs public release of withheld records on Sevier County wildfire

State officials kept secret for weeks a judge’s ruling that government records on the handling of the deadly Sevier County wildfire could be released to the public, reports the News Sentinel, which obtained a copy by asking the judge and court clerk.

The order by Juvenile and General Sessions Judge Jeff Rader, filed June 5, came in response to the state attorney general’s request for clarification on what records the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency could release about the fire that killed 14 people.

…The judge, who will hear the case of the two teenagers accused of setting the blaze, said a gag order issued in the case applied only to prosecutors, defense lawyers and court officials – and to no one else.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and various other agencies have cited the case for months in refusing to release records of the response to the wildfire. TEMA spokesman Dean Flener indicated the agency will comply with the ruling. He offered no timetable.

The only details the judge specifically barred from release – the names of two teenage boys accused of starting the fire – TEMA already had released to the News Sentinel, apparently by accident. The agency offered no explanation.

“The judge is spot-on,” said Deborah Fisher, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, which promotes government transparency and access to public records.

“Keeping this information from the public has been detrimental to the people of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge who have gone through this tragedy, and it has been detrimental to the people and agencies who responded to it. We need to understand what happened so it can never happen again.

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.
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