Councilman upset over omitted e-mails

Councilman upset over omitted e-mails

September 2nd, 2010 by Cliff Hightower in Politics Local

A Chattanooga city councilman blasted the city administration Wednesday for not fully complying with his open records request, while Mayor Ron Littlefield's attorney said a court hearing could come as soon as Friday in the recall effort.

Councilman AndraƩ McGary, who hosts the radio talk show "Live and Local" on 102.3 WGOW-FM, said Wednesday that at least three e-mail exchanges between Littlefield and Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West were left out of the documents he received after making a records request.

"It certainly looks like they were purposefully omitted," McGary said. "I don't think it was an accident."

McGary said he will raise the issue during the City Council's Legal and Legislative Committee meeting Tuesday. He has said he is "very interested" in running should there be a recall election.

McGary, the Chattanooga Times Free Press and several other media outlets requested copies of the e-mails early last week. The city released the e-mails Monday.

Littlefield and West traded e-mails more than two weeks ago, trying to set up a meeting. In them, both men talk about politics, religion and the recall effort.

In his records request, McGary asked for any e-mails between West and Littlefield.

McGary said Wednesday he was given e-mails from Aug. 15 through Aug. 19. He said two e-mails between the two men that fell within those dates were not included. A third e-mail that occurred after those dates also was not included.

City officials responded to the records request from the Times Free Press in the same fashion.

Richard Beeland, spokesman for the mayor, said the city handed over "all we had on the city [computer] server."

The mayor wrote the e-mails on a city account. But Beeland said Littlefield didn't have to release any of the e-mails because they were "personal" and exempt from the Tennessee Open Records Act.

He said the mayor released them anyway, but he couldn't explain why some weren't turned over.

Mark Keil, the city's information officer, said his office searched the computer system and released what was found. He said there could be multiple reasons for the e-mails not appearing, including the mayor deleting them the same day.

Elisha Hodge, open records counsel for the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, said state law requires that governments make such records available to the public. But if there is no record to produce, it is not a violation, she said.

"If the record doesn't exist, it just doesn't exist," she said.

Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the only recourse if someone questions whether all records have been released is to file a lawsuit.

But he questioned whether the mayor could label the e-mails "personal."

"How someone can have a personal conversation over a city server? That's a crock," he said.

Also Wednesday, Hal North, Littlefield's attorney, said the courts could move on the recall effort by this morning.

"We're waiting to get this assigned to a judge," North said.

He said a Circuit Court judge could be handed the case today and a hearing could come as early as Friday.

Littlefield filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Hamilton County Circuit Court to stop the recall effort launched by the Chattanooga Tea Party, Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield and Chattanooga Organized for Action. Under the City Charter, the recall groups gathered enough signatures to force a recall election.

But Littlefield contends the groups used petitions not approved by the Hamilton County Election Commission, failed to get dates with each signature and included allegations rather than questions on the petitions.