"Blatantly partisan attacks."
It's not a unique line. Countless politicians have used it (or something close) as a way to discredit matters their detractors have raised about them. In other words, it means: "Pay no attention to what they're saying. They're just playing politics. Nothing to see here, folks."
Benghazi inquiries? Partisan attacks.
Planned Parenthood questions? Partisan attacks.
And now in Chattanooga: WhatsApp? Partisan attacks.
When news broke in late September that Mayor Andy Berke and his senior staff have used the encrypted smartphone messaging tool WhatsApp to discuss official business — thereby possibly sidestepping open records laws — some notable area Republicans suggested the Democrat mayor resign his post.
Does that recommendation fit the deed? Well, that's where things get hairy. Because murky water is still swirling around City Hall's use of WhatsApp, as key questions have gone unresolved.
Fellow local columnist Bill Colrus posed some of them earlier this week. They include:
Why did Berke and other city employees use WhatsApp in the first place, and why did they stop? Has any city employee deleted any WhatsApp communication that the public has a right to see? Was WhatsApp used to purposely subvert any open records requests?
Those are substantial questions that warrant direct answers.
When initially replying to media inquiries on the subject, multiple high-ranking members of the mayor's staff, as well as the mayor himself, offered conflicting responses. When those inconsistencies were revealed, opportunistic opposing politicos pounced. Which, as it turns out, has been a bit of a public relations lifeline for Berke.
They gave him the chance to frame the whole episode as a "blatantly partisan attack," instead of actually explaining the above questions.
Berke is a smart guy, and smart people don't let golden opportunities go unclaimed. So when the two most prominent critics of his team's WhatsApp use happen to be the chairman of the Hamilton County GOP and his Republican re-election challenger, it was easy to relegate the whole matter to the world of political jabbing.
"Nothing to see here, folks."
But it's a sleight of hand — a very untransparent way to deal with questions about his administration's transparency.
Here's a radical concept for people who've dedicated their careers to party politics: The rest of us don't see the world through a Democrat versus Republican prism. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as honest bipartisan concern. Nonpartisan even.
And, of late, there is plenty to be concerned about when observing the goings on at City Hall, so it's no surprise the "partisan attacks" card has been thrown out there. Yet while it's not a surprising play, it's unsatisfactory.
Now more than ever, Berke needs to walk the transparency walk. If no malpractice was employed in the WhatsApp saga, then this shouldn't be a difficult thing to do. Just issue clear, verifiable (key word: verifiable) details about how and why senior officials used the messaging tool. Simple as that.
However, if no simple answers emerge and the sidestepping continues, the mayor cannot expect the questions to go away.
Berke likes to remind us that he was elected thanks to bipartisan support. If bipartisan support is possible, then bipartisan concern can exist too. Moving forward, Berke can't expect to maintain the former without addressing the latter.
Contact David Allen Martin at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @DMart423.