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.

© 2008 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 6

big_vol writes:

Beat a dead horse...rinse...repeat...

Elaine writes:

big_vol...maybe if the dead horse is beaten enough Randy Nichols will notice how much it stinks. Keep beating the horse , Frank.

big_vol writes:

Even when Nichols is done playing footsie with Hutchison and crew, he ain't gonna smell nothing on Rags and everyone knows it. But by all means, keep beating.

powert writes:

Anyone who thinks this is beating a dead horse is either working (or worse) for Ragsdale or just clueless. We the people must remain vigilant against scoundrels like the so-called Mayor.
It is time for us to act. We need to rid our county of him and his cronies.

knoxtenn writes:

Other than vague references to the ORA and the Constitution, I don't see any actual laws referenced in this article. I found it curious that you would question Mr. Gibson's "understanding" of the subject without a greater basis than mere opinion. I don't have a dog in the fight, but decided to look it up.

Without going into all the citations, the Open Records Act defines a county public record as all documents, papers and records in all county offices, including county commission. The Act tasks CTAS with creating a retention schedule for records. The CTAS manual "Records Management for County Governments" states, in part, as follows:

"The retention schedule entry for Correspondence Files (see entry 15-010) recommends keeping correspondence with citizens or government officials regarding policy
and procedures or program administration for five years. This standard should apply whether the correspondence is by traditional “snail mail” or e-mail."

And the following is from the County Commission's E-Mail Policy, found at "Any personal information submitted through forms or email from the user is considered public information and may be subject to inspection upon request as governed by the Tennessee Open Records Act, Tenn. Code Ann. Section 10-7-503." This disclosure trumps any constitutional privacy interest, because the citizen is informed that the e-mail is "public information."

And, the Commission's web site does not disclose Ms. DeFreese's personal e-mail address, or any e-mail address, but rather allows you to send a direct e-mail to her from their web page. There can be no question that any e-mails received through that web site are public record.

Dollar to a donut that if the State AG were to issue an opinion for Ms. DeFreese, you would see the above language quoted, along with a finding that she must disclose. I only spent 30 minutes looking this up, but my bet is that Mr. Gibson knows what he's talking about.

realmayor writes:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.