Original Author: Hemsley, Sid
Date of Material: 09/05/2001
Personnel--Laws and regulations
Records management--Open records
MTAS was asked whether the Tennessee Public Records Law applies to e-mail sent by a city official.
September 5, 2001 (updated October 2017)
According to your phone call this date, the city administrator sent under a pseudonym to a certain female four e-mails, which the female (who was not a city employee) found objectionable and reported them to the attorney general. An investigation by the attorney general discovered the source of the e-mails. However, the attorney general concluded that no crime had been committed. As you described the e-mails, they were neither obscene nor pornographic, but were in questionable taste. The mayor informed the city administrator that the e-mails violated the city’s policy on e-mails, which the city administrator had drafted, and gave him the option of resigning or facing certain disciplinary action. The city administrator submitted his resignation to the mayor, effective October 1. A citizen has learned of the existence of the e-mails, and wants those e-mails and any e-mails that may have been sent from the city administrator’s computer.
Your question is: Are such e-mails public records?
The answer is yes, to the extent any of the emails were made or received in connection with the transaction of city business.
The Four E-Mails
Generally all municipal records, including computer records are subject to the public records law, unless they are specifically closed by state or federal statute [Memphis Publishing Company v. Holt, 710 S.W.2d 513 (Tenn. 1986); Cleveland Newspapers, Inc. v. Bradley County Memorial Hospital Board of Directors, 621 S.W.2d 763 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1981)]. Those statutes include the Tennessee Public Records Act itself, Tennessee’s Privacy Act [Tennessee Code Annotated, § 47-25-1101 et seq.], and various other state and federal statutes. In addition, Tennessee Code Annotated, § 10-7-512 requires cities to develop a policy on the monitoring of e-mail, and the policy must include a provision that states an employee’s e-mail correspondence may be a public record under Tennessee’s Public Records Act, and subject to inspection under “this part.” That language indicates that e-mail might be subject to public inspection under both the Tennessee Public Records Act and under Tennessee Code Annotated, § 10-7-512. Finally, persons also have a U.S. Constitutional right to privacy in various areas. However, in my opinion, none of those statutes or constitutional rights close the records in question.
Under the Public Records Act, records can be closed during an open criminal investigation. But even in criminal cases, when the case is closed, the records become open. [Holt, above]. It can be argued that the “case” against the city administrator is still open. That is an extremely weak argument. Under the facts related to me, the attorney general has completed his investigation and has concluded that no criminal charges will be forthcoming.
It could also be argued that a municipality can close records during an administrative investigation, but we need not reach a conclusion on that question, because the city has apparently exercised its administrative remedies, leading to the resignation of the city administrator, effective October 1. A resignation of an officer is not final until it has been accepted by the body or person that has the authority to make the appointment of the officer, and cannot be withdrawn once it is accepted [State ex rel. v. Bush, Sheriff, 141 Tenn. 229 (1918); State ex rel. Bergschicher v. Grace, 113 Tenn. 9 (1904); Murray v. State ex rel. Luallen, 115 Tenn. 303 (1905)].
The City Charter is unusual in that it provides that the mayor has the power of appointment, subject to the approval of the city council, over “department heads and other major officers of the City whose appointments are not otherwise provided for in this charter and who would not be employees of boards or commissions.” The appointment of the city administrator is “not otherwise provided for in the charter.” For that reason, the mayor has the power of appointment over the city administrator. In the absence of any statute or charter provision to the contrary, the power of appointment includes the power of removal [Gillespie v. Rhea County, 235 S.W.2d 4 (1950); Gamblin v. Town of Bruceton, 803 S.W.2d 690 (Tenn. App. 1990)]. The mayor having accepted the city administrator’s resignation appears to have concluded the administrative investigation against the city administrator, even though technically he remains on the city payroll until October 1.
I can find no exception to the Public Records Act that applies to the recipient of the e-mails. Under the facts, she herself disclosed those e-mails, and the attorney general investigated them. Had criminal charges been forthcoming, the records could have remained closed under Holt only until the case was closed. It seems to me that even if the recipient had some right to privacy in the e-mails (a right which I cannot find in any statute or cases) she waived those rights when she made them the subject of a criminal investigation.
Additional E-Mails On The City Administrator’s Computer
With particular respect to the citizen’s request for the additional e-mails on the city administrator’s computer, under Tennessean v. Electric Power Board of Nashville, 979 S.W.2d 297 (Tenn. 1998), those records also appear to be public records, to the extent they were made or received in connection with the transaction of city business. Obviously, the city administrator may have sent and received literally thousands of e-mail messages. Most of those e-mail messages have probably already been deleted in the ordinary course of business. While I am not a computer expert, I have been told that it is possible to retrieve even deleted e-mails, but that the process is extremely expensive. Electric Power Board also held that where the recovery of information in a city’s computer records in a format useful to the person requesting the records requires a new program or special techniques, the city can charge that person the cost of such new program or special techniques. The Court supported its holding by pointing to Tennessee Code Annotated, § 10-7-506(a), under which an agency could enforce reasonable rules “governing the making of such extracts, copies, photographs, or photostats.” Needless to say, the city is probably well-advised to keep track of the time it takes to produce the requested records and charge for any labor and requested copies in accordance with the city's public records policy.
Sidney D. Hemsley
Senior Law Consultant