Emails released from a public records request that cost Loudon County $6,000 provide little insight into why county commissioners decided to make changes to the public comment policy but open government advocates say the messages show county leaders have a bad attitude about transparency.
Richard Truitt, who made the records request, said that he wanted to learn the truth behind changes to the county policy of allowing public comment at commission meetings. He said he wanted to know if the commissioners had violated the state's Open Meetings Act by discussing the policy changes in private.
The changes provide for 30 minutes of public comment at the begining of each regular meeting, during which citizens will have five minutes to comment on all topics.
Truitt took out a full page advertisement in a Loudon County newspaper last weekend criticizing county Mayor Buddy Bradshaw and commissioners for the way public records requests are handled.
The ad juxtaposes on the record comments made by Bradshaw and some commissioners with undated excerpts from about 10 of the hundreds of emails reviewed by Truitt and his lawyer, Linda Noe.
"Mr. Truitt, through his public records request and his newspaper ad, has shed light on those Loudon County officials who say they support open government but who then use public and private email accounts to belittle and attack citizens and try to keep public records out of the public view," Noe said.
None of the emails released appears to show any communication between commissioners about the public comment policy that might have violated the so-called sunshine law, Commissioner Van Shaver said. "There was never any improper communication between commissioners, not emails, not smoke signals or anything like that," he said.
According to Noe, Mayor Bradshaw mismanaged the records request and cost the county taxpayers $6,000 in totally unnecessary legal fees. "If someone asks to see an email, you don't print it out and tell them to come look at it. You forward it to them. Mayor Bradshaw and the commissioners didn't forward their emails to Mr. Truitt for inspection. Instead, the mayor's first action was to call the $250 per hour county attorney to get the emails," she said.
In a public hearing sponsored last month by the state Office of Open Records counsel, Bradshaw testified in support of charging to view public records. He said the cost of the Truitt records request in time and legal fees strained the county resources. "We did everything we could to comply with the request but it was still a burden on the county," he said.
Truitt's ad also accuses commission chairman Steve Harrelson of acting unilaterally to implement changes in the policy and trying to avoid public comment on the subject.
Harrelson said the changes were voted unanimously by the entire commission after public discussion by the commission. No resident has ever been denied the opportunity for public comment since the changes were made, he said.