TUPELO – The Daily Journal has requested an advisory opinion from the Mississippi Ethics Commission after the city of Tupelo denied an open records request for emails between Mayor Jason Shelton and former city Development Services Director BJ Teal.
Tupelo City Attorney Ben Logan recently notified the Daily Journal of a denial of the newspaper’s request to release an email between Shelton and Teal sent between Oct. 23-26. State law provides for an advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission as a next step when a public records request is denied.
The Daily Journal specifically requested communications between Shelton and Teal during this interval because it was just after the department head formally notified the mayor of her resignation and after she publicly discussed her disappointment with Shelton’s level of support in neighborhood redevelopment efforts.
The newspaper formally requested the city provide digital copies of all emails and text messages between the mayor and Teal during that period.
Logan’s response revealed that no text messages were exchanged but an email was. In the denial, Logan defined the email as a “personnel record.”
“In balancing our long-stated policy of transparency and public access to public information with our employees’ right to privacy on certain matters, we have reached a factual determination that the communication is of such nature that it is confidential and cannot be released without the consent of the employee.”
After Teal’s Oct. 24 interview with the Daily Journal, she declined to speak further on her reasons for leaving her city position.
Leonard Van Slyke, a Jackson attorney who advises the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information and Mississippi Press Association on public information issues, said the email exchange between Shelton and Teal should not be considered a personnel record, which is exempt from disclosure under state law.
“Obviously, we know of no such exception for emails,” he said.
Lloyd Gray, executive editor of the Daily Journal, said the newspaper seeks a clarification of the open records law in asking for the Ethics Commission opinion.
“We believe an email between the mayor and a department head regarding city business is not exempt from the law, and we hope the Ethics Commission can clarify that for all parties involved,” Gray said.
The commission will forward a copy of the request for a non-binding public records opinion to Logan and Shelton, who will have 14 days to file a response with the commission. After 14 days, the commission can issue an opinion.