Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Ragsdale the witch hunter

Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale has put in an open records request for constituent correspondence between County Commissioner Victoria DeFreese and her constituents. Knox County Law Director John Owings says DeFreese must comply. DeFreese is threatening to seek the opinion of the State Attorney General on the matter:

The letter goes on to say that it represents the mayor's office's:

"...formal request under the Tennessee Open Records Act for access to or copies of any and all correspondence you have received by fax, letter or email related to spending issues in county government. We also request access to or copies of any and all records regarding phone calls you have received including handwritten notes, telephone logs or any other related documentation."

"I resent being asked to divulge information that was drafted by constituents that were freely expressing their feeling to me as their representative," DeFreese said Monday afternoon in a press conference she called.

Mayor's spokesman Dwight Van de Vate says in no way was the letter intended to be confrontational toward DeFreese, calling it a standard and common request.

"I certainly don't think we need to force the issue. It is not intended to be disruptive and very clearly it might be already and that is certainly not our goal," Van de Vate says.

Note that Mike Ragsdale is not requesting these letters so that he may respond to constituents' concerns-certainly he isn't giving that impression to Commissioner DeFreese. Those who are concerned that DeFreese should turn over constituent correspondence to the Mayor's Office need to ask themselves: Do private citizens have an expectation of privacy when communicating with their elected representatives?

Here at The World, we don't necessarily have that expectation because we've made a conscious decision to operate a very public weblog, and lots of folks know who operates this blog even without personally knowing the writer. When this writer utilizes correspondence with a public official, it is the assumption here that word just might get around. However, 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. There is no guarantee, for example, that Mike Ragsdale and his staff will not attempt to make life hell for those who dared speak out against him. If Ragsdale has the names of citizens who oppose him, there is little assurance to these people that his minions will not find a way to get back at them for taking aim at his embattled administration.

The long and short of it is that the Mayor's Office (the executive branch of Knox County Government) asking for the constituent correspondence of a county commissioner (the legislative branch) to be turned over to them looks an awful lot like a witch hunt.

As is to be expected, Ragsdale's allies at the News-Sentinel, the editor of which thinks that our State Constitution is a worthless frontier document (it reflects a "frontier mentality"-you know, the mentality that gave us the Bill of Rights), are willing agitators in the witch hunting process-and it could be argued that they have re-written the manual on witch hunts for the modern era. Elected officials are frightened to talk to each other, to the press, and now to their constituents. Soon, constituents may be afraid to call their representatives.

DeFreese should be encouraged to seek the Attorney General's opinion regardless of whether Ragsdale's office "pushes" the issue or not. The idea that a county executive has the right to request correspondence between members of the legislative body and their private citizen constituents has very serious and extremely dangerous constitutional implications. Citizens have just as much right to protection from over-zealous government as the press has freedom to pursue openness within that government.



At Tuesday, April 01, 2008 1:39:00 PM, Blogger Stushie said...

david, Victoria doesn't need an AG opinion; all she needs to do is read the act itself. The part about emails in the act pertains to employees of the governmental agency. Commissioners are representatives of the people, not the County mayor's employees. Victoria doesn't need to hand over anything.
That's why the Mayor isn't pushing for this...he must have read the Act last night.


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