Email ruling creates open-government precedent

Judge David Duggan issued his formal ruling today in our lawsuit against Knox County over emails the law director refused to release because he considered them to be “personal.” Strictly personal communication on government computers can be exempt from the state’s Public Records Act. But because of subject lines, attachments and other clues, we suspected that 13 emails the county had withheld from a request last year did involve government business.

News Sentinel Managing Editor Tom Chester

News Sentinel Managing Editor Tom Chester

Duggan agreed regarding nine of the 13. Six he said were “clearly connected with the county mayor’s campaign and his statutory duty to make campaign financial disclosures.” Two others involved a federal candidate’s campaign disclosures, and the ninth email involved a grant application and was “obviously connected to the transaction of business with a government agency, viz., the City of Knoxville Community Development Division.”

Three other emails involved a county employee’s personal bank loan, and the last email was just a joke, the judge found.

What was great about the ruling was Duggan’s insistence on a broad interpretation of the Public Records Act and his finding that the business of “any” government agency invoked the law.

It has been more than a year since Tom Chester, the News Sentinel’s managing editor, first made this public records request. County Law Director Bud Armstrong has said he won’t turn the emails over yet. He has 30 days to decide to appeal. I don’t know if a story ever will come from the information. But even if it doesn’t, Duggan’s ruling sets a precedent that will advance government transparency for years to come.