Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke scoffed Friday afternoon at what he called a "blatantly partisan attack" by the Hamilton County Republican Party chairman, who called for Berke to resign over allegations he used encrypted communications to evade public records laws.
In an emailed statement, Berke said public officials "are expected to communicate with citizens over lots of channels — Facebook, Twitter, email, Instagram, text message and others."
He said the mayor's office complies fully with open records laws and has fulfilled 3,314 open records requests so far this year.
"I don't pay attention to blatantly partisan attacks," Berke said in the statement. "Over the years I've enjoyed having the support of both Republicans and Democrats and I'll continue to govern for the people who live here and not for political parties."
Tony Sanders, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, called for Berke's resignation in a news release Friday morning.
Sanders cited "the admission by [Berke] that he and his senior staff employ an encrypted message application that neither records or stores messages sent and received for the purpose of official city of Chattanooga business on a government-owned server."
Berke told the Times Free Press this week he has used the encrypted smartphone message application Whatsapp to communicate government business, but said he isn't doing it now.
The app allows message senders and recipients to store messages and phone calls. But, unlike an email sent using the city's email server, Whatsapp does not store messages sent by its users.
City officials stressed that a record and information policy adopted in December 2015 requires chat messages be retained for at least 60 days and emails for five years.
"As to my understanding, most cities have no policy about text message and electronic communication," Berke said. "We've put forth a policy that says exactly what [city employees] have to do. So in most places, you could delete the next day. We don't do that. We try to go above and beyond by putting forth a policy that says what we need to do."
Citing the records policy, Sanders' statement said he's heard complaints from residents and elected officials that Berke and his staff "are breaking laws that others must honor and adhere to as public officials."
"As an attorney and officer of the court, Mayor Berke either has no understanding of the open records law or has chosen to ignore it. Either way, it's not acceptable for an elected official to conduct city business outside of the public realm," Sanders said.
" Their actions are clearly outside of the ethical bounds of a public official. Mayor Berke promised an open and transparent government, but his actions and those of his senior staff violate the public's trust and confidence in government. His blatant disregard of ethical standards and the law pertaining to open records make him no longer fit to lead the city of Chattanooga."
County Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lee came to Berke's defense, saying the call for the mayor's resignation is a "partisan attack launched by the local Republican Party."
Lee said Sanders "is absolutely wrong about the facts and apparently has no clue as to how open records work."
"Had Mr. Sanders done any actual research on the topic, he would know that every iPhone is now encrypted, as is Facebook Messenger and iMessage, and that encryption does not in any way prevent a message from being requested and made available to the public," Lee said in an emailed statement.
Concerns over text communications by Berke and his senior staff arose after a domestic incident involving adviser Lacie Stone and her husband, Bobby. Bobby Stone has alleged his wife was having an affair with Berke, who has denied the claim.
Bobby Stone was charged with assault and vandalism, but his court case has been repeatedly delayed while awaiting results of a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe into the allegations.
Berke is completing his first term as mayor and has said he will seek re-election in March 2017.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.