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Newspaper wants ruling from Ethics Commission on emails

TUPELO — A Tupelo newspaper is asking the Mississippi Ethics Commission for advice on whether an email between the mayor and a department head regarding city business is exempt from the public records law.

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal is seeking access to emails between Mayor Jason Shelton and former city Development Services director BJ Teal.

Tupelo city attorney Ben Logan recently denied the newspaper’s request to release an email between Shelton and Teal sent Oct. 23-26.

The Daily Journal said it was during this time that Teal 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,” Logan told the newspaper.

Leonard Van Slyke, a Jackson attorney who works on First Amendment 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.

The Ethics Commission will forward a copy of the request for the 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.

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