Mar 31 2008
10:52 am
By: R. Neal  shortURL

Newly appointed Commissioner Victoria DeFreese remarked in last week's Commission meeting that she had received "countless" e-mails, faxes, letters, and phone calls regarding the recent p-card audit.

Now, the Mayor's office has made a formal request to Commissioner DeFreese under the Tennessee Open Records Act requesting access to copies of all correspondence including letters, faxes, and emails she has received regarding the p-card audit, and also phone records and any logs or notes related to phone calls she has received about the audit.

Not sure why they would want to keep poking this hornet's nest with a stick. At any rate, I guess somebody will have to count them now. Wonder how many were from Paul Pinkston?

UPDATE: DeFreese responds, will hold a press conference at 3PM to discuss the request. According to the report, her position is that the correspondence is not public record. There's also something about "communication 'forged' by citizens." Probably not what she meant to say.

UPDATE: WBIR contacts an expert who says if the correspondence was received in transaction of public business then it is public record, adding "Ethically speaking, I don't know why (Commissioner DeFreese) would want to withhold it." Good question. Boxes and boxes of correspondence would certainly be embarrassing for the mayor. Why not just produce them?

UPDATE: From the KNS: "At any rate, DeFreese said she doesn't have any of the e-mails or other communications because she gets so many she doesn't keep them." Seriously? Game, set, match.

Anonymously Nine's picture

Now begins a complex legal debate

Does the Tennessee Open Records Act trump the First and Fourth Amendments of the United States Constitution?

Michael Silence says it does. Legal experts I have talked with say it doesn't.

The question is whether private citizens have an expectation to privacy when they communicate with their County Commissioners. What will the average citizen do if they think that anything they communicate to their Commissioner can become public record? They will cease communicating with their Commissioners. Is that what we need?

Is that the goal Mayor Ragsdale has in mind? Or is he just compiling another enemies list like the good old days of Tyler Harber.

No matter what the legal outcome of this is, this was criminally stupid of Ragsdale and people must question whether his service as Mayor have become counter productive to our County?

R. Neal's picture

I guess I don't follow the

I guess I don't follow the 1st and 4th Amendment argument. DeFreese is an elected public official. Receiving and acting on correspondence from constituents is part of her official duties. Citizens corresponding with elected officials presumably want their remarks taken into account in conducting public affairs, which should be conducted in public. And isn't writing to elected officials sort of the point of the 1st Amendment?

I have never had any expectation of private correspondence when writing a public official, and don't see why anyone else would either unless it involved something of a highly sensitive nature such as a minor or an ongoing criminal investigation.

Anonymously Nine's picture

I have never had any

I have never had any expectation of private correspondence when writing a public official, and don't see why anyone else would either unless it involved something of a highly sensitive nature such as a minor or an ongoing criminal investigation.

It is more than emails, fax, and letters. It is phone calls and phone numbers. According to Betty Bean's article Ragsdale used the Chad Tindell emails which were stolen by Tyler Harber to create an enemies list. I would imagine any county employee who complained to DeFreese doesn't feel very good wondering if the Mayor will learn of their feelings towards him.

As far as concern over a criminal investigation, I think that hits the nail on the head. We give protection to whistleblowers, so does the Open Records act trump that protection?

We don't know the content of these communications. I would ask why the Mayor would seek this information. If these people did not contact the Mayor, then why would the Mayor feel they would appreciate a phone call from him? It looks like intimidation.

R. Neal's picture

The CBT emails were private

The CBT emails were private correspondence and not public business. They were compromised by what some allege were illegal means. That seems different to me.

I suppose there is a whistleblower protection aspect to your argument. But many government agencies have procedures for that. Does Knox County? I don't know. On the other hand, a lot of anonymous whistle blowers can waste a lot of government official's time (and taxpayer's money) chasing down every wild accusation made by someone with an ax to grind.

Anyway, this just sounds like a case of a Commissioner making an exaggerated claim in a public meeting, and the offended party calling her on. As I said, though, I'm not sure why they want to keep poking at this hornet's nest.

bill young's picture

exaggerated claim

true countless means incapable of counting.

in todays world one is capable of counting cell phone calls &

maybe should have said more than i can count.

i bet the commissioners have got tons or maybe just alot
of folks that have e-mailed or made cell phone calls to them
not to happy about the mayor's office.

i have not.i did in support of the charter review committee.

if those e-mails end up in the mayors office so be it.

i have agreed with tank..let the mayor respond..let the process begin april 23rd & the chips fall where they may.

bill young's picture

dont know

I just dont know what falls under the open records act.

The Mayor could have a legal leg to stand on.

I just dont know why he wants to.

Rachel's picture

Not sure why they would want

Not sure why they would want to keep poking this hornet's nest with a stick.

My guess - I suspect the Mayor sees an opening to discredit someone who's going to keep poking him with a stick. DeFreese is Pinkston with more brains and a more pleasant manner.

And yes, she's running for 2010.

DeFreese tried hard before her appt to portray herself as objective and independent. She's been roughed up on that score (although anybody who's been paying any attention already knew she had a definite agenda).

That said, anything that puts her in front of the television cameras is probably a bad idea.

CL's picture

"It is our intent to contact

"It is our intent to contact as many citizens as possible that express concern over this issue, including those who contacted individual commissioners, the County Commission office and the Knox County Ethics Committee," states the letter, dated March 27 and signed by Dwight Van de Vate, the mayor's chief administrative officer.

That is a quote from the KNS article. I had heard that the letter was sent to all the county commissioners. That quote seems to confirm that rumor. It also seems that they are planning on contacting anyone who disagrees with the mayor. That would make people less likely to contact their elected officials in the future if they thought that it might result in any type of intimidation.

Mike Cohen's picture

Open Records

I think you have to at least try to separate the politics from the issue. The reason someone wants a public record doesn't matter. We don't want judgement to be a part of any official deciding. The law, as I understood it from my days as a journalist (back when you had to shovel coal to keep the TV transmitter has been a while) the law is simple and clean: if you're a public official and you are given documents in your capacity as a public official it's a public record. The guide I always use: (link...)

Pam Strickland's picture

open records are open records

I have to agree w/ Mike. And, I appreciate him linking the law.

I can't imagine anyone thinking that something in writing or on the computer is private and would absolutely never be shared by the receiver. As for private information, phone numbers are generally considered public information. Bank account and SSN are private. In some cases health issues are private. Otherwise, if it's there, it's public record.

It's a whole lot better than keeping secrets. I heard someone say once that we are as sick as our secrets. So, healthy is better.


Pam Strickland

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." ~Kurt Vonnegut

KC's picture

I guess I don't follow the

I guess I don't follow the 1st and 4th Amendment argument.

So if the Bush administration starts taking detailed notes on all who oppose the war in Iraq, you'd have no problem with that?

By making your assumption that the right of the people "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances," should not be practiced assuming any degree of any anonymity on the part of the petitioner, because it has to do with government practices, then you are essentially calling for an end to everything from any private conversations with public officials to the use of a secret ballot system for voting, since that practice too relates to government operations.

R. Neal's picture

I someone wants to sent an

If someone wants to send an unsigned letter or an anonymous email from a throwaway email account to a public official, that's their right and their business. It still becomes public record, and can be considered and even publicly commented on by the public official who receives it. In my experience, though, they take letters and other correspondence more seriously if they are signed.

If I write a letter to the President protesting the Iraq war, I assume it will be part of the public record, and if I'm an interesting enough person (which I'm not) I assume I might even go in a database somewhere. Big deal. "Taking notes" on me, as in investigating me, interesting person or not, would be entirely different, unless I gave them cause by making threats or something equally stupid.

Voting is totally different from correspondence.

Rachel's picture

So if the Bush

So if the Bush administration starts taking detailed notes on all who oppose the war in Iraq, you'd have no problem with that?

You don't think they're doing that already?

Anonymously Nine's picture

You don't think they're

You don't think they're doing that already?

Actually Bush came to mind with this latest outrage from Ragsdale. So did Nixon. So did several Third World Dictators.

This is simple, is the United State Constitution the supreme law of the land? From the Magna Carta came "a man's home is his castle". The Constitutional guarantees the privacy of our homes and papers. Protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.

If the interpretation that the Open Records Act trumps the Constitution were true, every single Knox County Commissioner in history would have warned citizens that any and all communication to Commissioners could become public record.

No Commissioner has ever warned a citizen that their phone calls, notes, letters, faxes, or emails could become public. This will probably become a court case and once again we have Mayor Mike Ragsdale to thank.

Just like the Sunshine Law has been used as a tactical political weapon so has the Open Records Act. I hope the next Mayor will just do his damn job and leave the petty Tyler Harber "Art of War" crap alone.

Dwight Van de Vate's picture


The letter to Commissioner DeFreese is posted at the Knox County web site, (link...)

Also posted there is an example of the cover letter sent last week to citizens who wrote the Ethics Committee, as well as a copy of the letter sent to members of the Ethics Committee who are not County Commissioners (to discourage further conspiracy theories, the reason it was sent only to non-Commission members is that Commissioners have long since received the audit response).

Dwight Van de Vate
Chief Administrative Officer
Knox County Mayor's Office

Anonymously Nine's picture

The letter to Commissioner

The letter to Commissioner DeFreese looks quite different. Where any other Commissioners sent a letter similar to Commissioner DeFreese?

Has the Mayor's office at any time ever warned private citizens that their communications were subject to public disclosure?

For example, if a person calls the Mayor's office, are they told their phone number will be recorded and may be made public?

Mike Cohen's picture

Bush comment by Gary

The President would not be covered by the Tennessee Open Records law. This is a TN General Assembly act and applies only to Tennessee.

But I will tell you this, while there may be times that you don't like what it allows to be made public, overall it is a very, very good law. And don't think for a minute that most public officals don't know the law. Many in Mayor Ragsdale's office, including the Mayor, note it on their e-mail signatures.

Tennessee is better off for having this law.

RigsbyWerner's picture

This is a bullying tactic, trying to deter citizen involvment

in the public debate regarding Ragsdale's spending habits and proclivity to throw the public's money around with absolutely nothing to show for the vast investment in his personal lifestyle.

I suspect that the local media is already onto this tactic and if DeFreese can maintain her composure in a press conference, not talk about reading to children, or talking about moving the community forward, not talking about a time to heal, then this may be the begining of the end of Ragsdale as these gestapo type tactics to ascertain opinions and data from the citizens of the county is about as bad as it gets.

bill young's picture

will it play in the county precincts?

I think the number one question a Republican must ask themselves.

Will it play in those huge Republican county precincts.

I dont think this going play to good out in the county.

If dont play good..dont play it.

Ragsdale2010's picture

Wish these guys worked this hard recruiting new jobs

new industry and some realistic career opportunities to this community rather than play "gotcha" with an interim commissioner that voted against one of the administration's financial supporter's projects at the meeting last week.

We have a crisis in credibility in local government and hopefully Ms. DeFreese can make part of it go away this afternoon. Hopefully the mayor will resign and find some other budget to spend on rather than the public's money.

SHarris's picture

I contacted my commissioner (not DeFreese)

expessing my concerns about the p-card audit results and the competence of Mayor Ragsdale. After reading the letters that Mr. Van de Vate links to above, I would ask the mayor not to waste paper or time contacting me. I have already read his response to the audit and my opinion has not changed.

reform4's picture

My Quick Reading Of The Open Records Act (TN)

Refers repeatedly to "official correspondence." Correspondence generated BY the elected official is OC. Correspondence TO the elected official is not. If I write notes about a constituent's letter, that's my work product, and would be covered.

This point is easily reinforced by the e-mail section which reads "[email] correspondence OF the employee" and not TO the employee.

Fighting for Reform and Representation, Fourth District
Steve Drevik, Commission Seat 4-B

Anonymously Nine's picture

Refers repeatedly to

Refers repeatedly to "official correspondence." Correspondence generated BY the elected official is OC. Correspondence TO the elected official is not. If I write notes about a constituent's letter, that's my work product, and would be covered.

Almost verbatim what my attorney told me. That was my read of the Open Records Act. This is a dark day. The only light came from Commissioner DeFreese.

edens's picture

>This is a dark day. The

>This is a dark day. The only light came from...

"Anonymously" my ass. I'd recognize the overwrought rhetoric anywhere.

RigsbyWerner's picture

Was Radsdale that paranoid at Mortons/ThePalm sipping fine wine

on the Knox County dime?

If he only knew how little the public cares for his position in life now, perhaps he would do whatever it is that the county mayor is supposed to do without spending all that money every day on purely personal expenses.

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