Public Be Damned

Citizens have a right to private conversations with representatives

I suppose it's progress that the Ragsdale administration no longer steals e-mails, but is instead asking for them. Losing Tyler Harber must be more of a blow than we knew.

Mayoral spokesman Dwight Van de Vate sent a letter to Commissioner Victoria DeFreese last week asking her for copies of e-mails, phone logs, letters, faxes, or handwritten notes from her constituents complaining about the audit of the purchasing card usage by Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale's office.

The purported purpose of the letter was to get in touch with these people to explain the mayor's position. The last time the mayor's office got possession of critical e-mails, I can tell you the mayor getting in touch was not a pleasant experience—people were cursed, berated, and threatened. In fact, were it not for these Ragsdale calls no one would have known that Ragsdale aide Harber had turned over Chad Tindell's e-mails to Ragsdale.

The tone of the letter to DeFreese seems to be doubtful that she has received any complaints about Ragsdale's indiscretions revealed in a recent audit. Were you upset? Did you make a negative comment to anyone? Did you call or e-mail your county commissioner about it? I don't find it strange. The ethics committee, not exactly a high-profile organization, got over a dozen complaints. I went to a public forum at South Doyle, in DeFreese's district, about the charter changes. While not on the topic of Ragsdale's problems, the mood of the audience of over 100 people was definitely one of disgust with county government and a general dissatisfaction with the status quo. I did not detect any Ragsdale fans in the audience. I don't think it a stretch these same people, all in DeFreese's district, were upset about p-card abuse.

But in the final analysis it doesn't make a damn. If she only got one e-mail, the idea that she should turn it over to the mayor's office is an offense against the constitution and violates a centuries-old tradition of holding private communications close. DeFreese may be a public figure—the other end of the correspondence is not. DeFreese made the point Monday that to turn over these communications is to chill constituent communication with public officials. Since we have cameras trained on drivers at traffic lights, are we moving on to having their private communications with public officials exposed? Goodbye whistle-blowers.

We have reached a dangerous point in local politics. Principles, logic, and common sense are out the window. It doesn't matter. Do I like this guy? I'll defend him. Do I hate this guy? The law be damned.

WBIR quoted "open records expert" Frank Gibson saying communication between a constituent and a public official constituted a public record and must be made public. Gibson, a longtime editor at The Tennessean, has done yeoman work on behalf of open records at the Legislature, just up the street. But in this instance I can only conclude that Gibson: 1. Didn't understand the situation, and 2. Spoke reflexively without thinking it through.

The idea that a private communication between a constituent and a public official should be a public record is media run amok. Journalists used to have principles to which they would adhere, regardless of who was involved. It now appears principles be damned. If we are talking about people we don't like, principles don't matter anymore.

Harber gave Ragsdale copies of e-mails between Tindell and political columnists at the Halls Shopper, Metro Pulse (me), and the News Sentinel. The Sentinel has yet to ever editorially take Ragsdale to task for this. If they don't mind his reading their e-mail, let's see if they mind if he reads yours.