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Sullivan commissioners warned that texts about county business are public

J. H. Osborne • Dec 22, 2019 at 7:00 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Members of the Sullivan County Commission were urged at their monthly business meeting not to communicate about county business through emails or texts, especially on personal devices.

County Attorney Dan Street took the opportunity near the end of the meeting, a time when the floor often is open to any official who wants to share something or to have his or her say, to “remind” commissioners that requests for public records now often seek copies of emails and text messages in which elected officials have talked about county business. Street said he’d had two cases in the past week to address requests for texts and “we’ve already went through this with emails.”

“I don’t say this to beat up on you,” Street said to the commission. “I say this because we need to prepare now for those requests. So my solution would be that you do not communicate on county business either through email or text messages unless you are quite prepared to turn them over when somebody requests them.”

Street noted that complying with such requests, when they involve personal email addresses or texts from a private device, can be a “huge task.” Street later told the Times News this was a reference to either having to search through and separate messages of a personal, non-county business nature from those being sought because they do contain county business or having someone else perform that process, which would expose personal information the writer might not want to be shared with anyone.

Street said the level of some requests for communications of elected officials is almost enough to make people not even want to be involved in government anymore. And requests will come, Street said.

“I hope to assist you and prepare you for that,” Street said to the commission. “Just don’t do it.”

Street said another option would be for the county to purchase and maintain cell phones for each commissioner, who would use those phones solely for communicating about county business — and not their personal phones. That would make it easier to turn over messages regarding county business when a request is made by a member of the public.

Street said he just wanted to make commissioners aware “if this text or email is done in the course of county business ... talking about county business, it is a public record. You’ve got to turn it over. You need to be aware of it and do something preparing for it now, so you don’t regret it down the road. The only solution I know of is just don’t do it.”