Have you ever encountered a disagreement or situation – wherein the answer is so glaringly obvious and simple, you couldn’t provide it because you were struck mute by the profound lunacy of the argument?
Here is an example:
Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale requested Knox County Commissioner Victoria Defreese’s email correspondence after she’d stated that “countless” citizens had expressed concerns about the infamous county audit. Defreese is reluctant to submit this correspondence because she is unsure these emails are covered under the Open Record laws. Therefore, she intends to seek to AG’s opinion on the issue.
Here’s what I have to say about it, “………… “
Oh, pardon me, I was speechless there for a moment.
Now, as I understand it, most folks claim the request is nothing more than political retaliation. Apparently, Ragsdale and Defreese aren’t the best of friends. Awhile back, Mayor Mike burned the Commish’s library board. The Commish took revenge by putting the mayor’s butt in the hot seat over the p-card spending. So, most assume this is just one more shot fired. Perhaps. But does motive make a difference? Absolutely not.
If the emails were sent to a public official regarding public business or were otherwise related to this person’s official duties – then, yes, this is a public record. The law applies.
Blogger David Oatney disagrees. He states:
…most citizens likely have a reasonable expectation that if they communicate with an elected official, their letter will not be spread around to people they did not correspond with without their knowledge.
David is right, of course. Most citizens do have that expectation – but I’d have to argue that it is not a reasonable one. If you send a letter to your Alderman, Congressman or State Senator, you would expect this, as well as a copy of their response, to be a part of public record. (You can also expect to be placed on their spam list, which means you will start receiving updates about America’s impending Energy Crisis and how only Republicans can fix it.)
Why would eliminating the paper and stamp change anything?
To be fair, Knox County isn’t the only governing body trying to adjust to modern technology. Email issues are actually popping up throughout the country.
Detroit Free Press reports that members of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s staff launched an e-mail campaign to encourage Detroiters to “push back” against what they contend is unfair media coverage of the naughty mayor. The e-mails were sent from personal accounts during private time – but urged folks to respond via city hall phones and fax machines. Question: Is this misuse of city equipment?
In Wisconsin, Oshkosh Northwestern, a regional newspaper, made an open-records request for all eMail messages between the schools board and its constituents regarding district boundary and consolidation plans. When the paper received only 470 messages, it asked the state attorney general’s office whether eMail correspondence should be regarded as a matter of public record. Response: Attorney General Jim Doyle said unequivocally, yes.
Washington, Virginia, Texas, and Ohio have similarly found e-mails sent to or composed by a government official (even on a personal account) can be public records when they concern government business.
Michigan public records law relating to e-mail are not as firm: but depend upon the the function and content of a record in determining whether it is a “public” document.
Florida law does not require disclosure of personal e-mails.
The Phoenix (AZ) City Council routinely uses private e-mail accounts to conduct public business, blurring the line between public records and personal affairs and raising concerns about transparency in government.
Council members use personal, Web-based accounts to arrange meetings, discuss neighborhood issues and craft responses to constituents. One council office directed staff members to send all e-mails about controversial issues to an AOL account – and later email a code to the city account.
Question: is this a violation of public trust?
Clearly, if emails pertaining to official business were to be exempted from open records laws – this is going to cause problems. What, then, will prevent leaders from using electronic communication to evade the strictures of open-meetings laws, under-the-radar decisions and clouding up our so-called transparent government?
I realize many of us do have a false sense of security when it comes to e-correspondence, but honestly, this is insane. Written word in any form is easily reproducible and can be distributed. If sent electronically, the possibility it will be shared, exchanged, scattered, spread, posted, and passed increases tenfold.
For this reason, we must always be mindful of what we write – or as in my case, you can kick yourself for not starting those previously-written letters to public officials like this:
Dear Honorable Mayor,
I hope your rash has cleared up…
Mr. Hawkins County Schools Central Office Man,
Although most of the other moms think you’re a real wanker…