The chair of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission, Tom Smith, has informed all fellow members that they should no longer email each other, about anything, at any time, reports Nashville Post Politics.
“It has come to my attention that one or more Commission members have been communicating with other Commission members by e-mail,” Smith wrote (in an email) last week. “Per my conversations with the Attorney General’s office these e-mail communications could be viewed as discussions and/or deliberations in violation of Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act and otherwise foster a perception of a lack of transparency by this public body.
“Accordingly, in order to ensure that we are in full compliance with Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act, as Chairman, I am directing that that there be no further email communications between and among members of this Commission in their capacity as members of this Commission,” Smith added (emphasis his).
However, Tennessee law doesn’t say that communications between officials — whether via email, phone or text message — are a violation of the Open Meetings Acts, only that communications that include deliberations are.
“It certainly provides complete protection for the body,” says Deborah Fisher, the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, of the blanket email ban. “But it’s odd to cite transparency as a reason for it, because email is at least a public record.”
…Smith declined to answer repeated emails asking him which commissioners’ emails prompted his edict, who in the Attorney General’s office advised him as such, and whether phone, text, or in-person conversations between commission members that touched upon museum business would also fall afoul of his dictum. However, one commissioner suspects Smith is less concerned with the Open Meetings Act than he is sick of getting critical emails.
“I’m more amused about his lack of understanding of the law than I am outraged about it,” says museum commission member Victor Ashe, who has repeatedly criticized Smith’s actions in recent years — and regularly copied reporters on the often inflammatory emails he has sent to Smith and other commissioners.
“I’ve certainly shared my views, but I’ve not deliberated — and my views are known to all, because they are in the media,” Ashe comments. “This is an attempt by Tom to stifle discussion. If we followed his decision, we could only communicate four times a year when we meet, which is so silly.”
…Riggins-Ezzell has refused comment throughout, except in the press release announcing her retirement. But a public records request by the Post turned up an email implying even mores strongly that Smith did push Riggins-Ezzell out very unwillingly. In the email from Tennessee State Museum Foundation board member Milah Lynn to board chair Bobby Thomas and copied to Smith, Riggins-Ezzell and Gov. Bill Haslam, she writes:
“It has been my pleasure to be a part of The Tennessee State Museum board for a number of years. During my term, our Lois Riggens-Ezzell [sic] has served and led with passion, dignity and tireless effort. Her dream has been to complete her run as our leader and with a new home that properly houses and respects the wonderful museum that she has helped build. Now that the museum is on the threshold of accomplishing that dream, it is improper and disrespectful to ask for her resignation. At the very least, allow her to serve in an emeritus role at full compensation until she retires on proper terms.
“Due to the above and the months behind the scenes manipulations, I tender my resignation effective immediately.”
The email is dated Aug. 31, the day before the public announcement of Riggins-Ezzell’s retirement was made.
Lynn declined further comment, stating, “I’m not going to get involved.” Smith also declined to comment. Thomas noted that Lynn is the only board member to resign in protest, and that no one else has had a comment “one way or the other” on Riggins-Ezzell’s impending departure.
Meanwhile, news of Lynn’s resignation has still yet to be communicated to the commission.