Knox County and Knoxville differ on open record email policies

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – When it comes to government officials and their public records, it doesn’t matter what form they are in. Documents, pictures, emails and texts related to a government official’s job are all public record.

In light of Hilary Clinton’s lack of available emails from her time as Secretary of State, WATE 6 On Your Side looked into how local leaders are keeping track of their records and complying with Tennessee’s Open Records Act.

Related story: Clinton used personal email account as Secretary of State

“Whether I send you an email on the comptrollers email system or I send you an email from my personal email account, if the content of the email relates to the transaction of official business, it is a public record,” said Ann Butterworth from the Tennessee Open Records Counsel.

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett said keeping track of records, even emails, is vital for keeping the trust of citizens. Unlike Clinton, Mayor Burchett said Knox County employees don’t use personal email accounts for government business. In the county, there’s an extensive collection of official emails coming from government accounts.

“All of Knox County’s emails are captured and stored on our email server in perpetuity,” said Mayor Burchett. “There’s nothing more important than to put those issues to rest and show folks that we have nothing to hide. Knox County also has a records commission to deal with getting rid of records when it’s appropriate.”

Jesse Mayshark
Jesse Mayshark

It’s a little different with the city. Jesse Mayshark, the spokesperson for the City of Knoxville, said everyone handles their own emails, and Mayor Rogero has an executive assistant who keeps track of her correspondence.

“There’s not a requirement to retain records and so if you want to send an email and then delete it, you can. If you receive an email and want to delete it, you can. There’s nothing in the law that says you have to physically retain every piece of correspondence, every everything,” said Mayshark.

For the most part, Mayshark says city officials keep a lot of emails for their own reference, and they’re kept in the cloud.

“City employees do of course have to abide by city and state laws regarding retention of records. In the specific case of emails, those laws require certain kinds of communications to be retained – for example, something related to an issue that may be the subject of litigation, or emails relating to certain kinds of personnel issues. However, there is no broader requirement that all emails sent or received by City employees be retained for some set period,” said Mayshark.

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett

Butterworth said any emails unrelated to an official’s job can be deleted, but everything else is supposed to be retained for two to seven years, based on the content.

The city says it doesn’t have an explicit policy on officials’ emails, and there’s nothing stopping them from deleting an email before it’s been requested.

“What you cannot do is delete an email once it has become the subject of a records request. If you have a work-related email in your possession, and somebody asks to see it, in most cases it is going to be a public record and must be provided for inspection,” Mayshark said.

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