It took a couple of years and a public records lawsuit, but residents of Cookeville, Tennessee, finally know the salaries of senior administrators of a publicly owned local hospital.
The Cookeville Regional Medical Center Authority disclosed the information to the Herald-Citizen last month, less than three weeks after the newspaper’s editor sued the hospital with free legal support from an attorney from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The release of the records made it possible for the newspaper to provide answers to questions that its journalists and many community members have been asking the hospital for a couple of years, including whether top administrators, especially the town’s former mayor, were overpaid.
“It was a huge win for the newspaper, and it kind of reestablished our relevance in the community,” said Lindsay Pride, editor of the Herald-Citizen. “It showed that we are still significant. We are still important.”
The Herald-Citizen’s efforts to access the salary records began back in 2021, shortly after the hospital hired the part-time mayor of Cookeville to serve as its chief strategy officer, a new position that the hospital never publicly advertised. As a member of the city council, Pride said the mayor played a role in approving the hospital’s budget.
“If you’re voting on your own salary within that budget,” she said, “that felt like a conflict of interest to us, and to people within the community.” (A city council investigation concluded that the former mayor did not violate state law or the city charter regarding conflicts of interest, the Herald Citizen previously reported).
Pride made two requests for the salary records of the hospital’s senior administrators in May 2021. But hospital officials refused to provide the information. Pride said the newspaper’s ownership at the time decided not to pursue a lawsuit.
But community members continued to ask questions about the administrators’ salaries, even after the hospital laid off the former mayor and other top administrators.
“It’s a community-owned hospital, so the public obviously has an interest in what happens there,” said Pride, noting that, in the absence of actual information, rumors were rampant. “And people never stopped asking me about it.”
Through the Tennessee Press Association, Pride eventually connected with Paul McAdoo, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney for Tennessee. After explaining to him the hospital’s refusal to disclose the records, Pride said McAdoo told her to file another records request last August, which she did. Hospital officials didn’t even respond to it.
McAdoo then followed up the request with a letter to the hospital’s chief legal counsel urging the hospital to respond to Pride and turn over the requested records. The chief legal counsel replied in a letter last November that he had consulted with the hospital’s CEO and that “I do not have a response for you at this time.”
On behalf of Pride, McAdoo sued the hospital in March, alleging that there is no lawful basis for denying the editor’s request for the hospital salary records. Less than three weeks later, the hospital turned over all of the requested information.
The Herald-Citizen published a front-page story on March 24 that revealed the senior administrators’ salaries. As it turned out, Pride said, the salaries were lower than she and other community members expected. The former mayor made roughly $250,000 per year, not $400,000, as was rumored, she said.
Pride credits the lawsuit and a recent leadership change at the hospital with helping the newspaper finally obtain the records. (She said the hospital’s interim CEO, who took over around the time the lawsuit was filed, seems more open to transparency than the previous CEO.)
If not for the Reporters Committee’s free legal support, “I’m not sure my company would have let us pursue [the lawsuit],” she said. “I have no idea how much a lawsuit like this costs, but that’s a huge advantage to newspapers to be able to pursue a lawsuit at no expense to them.”
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.