Law violation reveals flaw in Jackson County email system

A public records request for Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe’s emails doesn’t tell much of a story — that’s because most of them are missing.

In violation of state law, Ashe deleted all but a few messages from his email accounts.

A few media outlets requested the sheriff’s emails after the American Civil Liberties Union alleged that Ashe used traffic checkpoints to find possible illegal immigrants, which led to the racial profiling of Latinos. Ashe has denied that his department setup checkpoints for anything other than the limited reasons allowed by law.

The allegations by the ACLU came just days after the sheriff found himself in the spotlight over alcohol permits. Ashe systematically delayed many businesses attempts to get an alcohol permit in the wake of a countywide alcohol vote.

Ashe was later relinquished of the responsibility of giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down opinion on alcohol permit requests. But, the matter prompted several records request for Ashe’s emails and other related documents as well.

State law requires that government records, including emails that pertain to official public business, be kept for at least a few years, though the length of time varies for specific records.

Ashe was unable to produce any emails as requested, claiming that he deleted all messages as a matter of course. Ashe did not respond to The Smoky Mountain News’ attempts to contact him for this article. The sheriff told The Sylva Herald last week that he believed there were copies on the server and did not realize he was required to maintain copies on his desktop.

A smattering of emails sent to and from Ashe was obtained through another public record’s request seeking email messages for Ashe’s staff, including Major Shannon Queen, Captain Chip Hall and Shena Philips, the chief’s assistant. They had retained copies of their emails, and therefore, media outlets were able to see at least a portion of Ashe’s emails.

Ashe has a history of being unresponsive to the media and reporters. An indication of his attitude toward the media was reflected in one email message that was captured from Queen’s computer.

In particular, Queen emailed Ashe asking how he should handle a public record request from The Smoky Mountain News on which alcohol permits had been turned down.

“What if I didn’t keep copies? Don’t return phone calls,” Ashe wrote back to his chief deputy. “Send her an email referring her to the ABC commission.”


Email overhaul

The email records controversy with Ashe has proven a teaching moment for Jackson County employees, who now realize that their emails are not in fact saved to the county’s server. Once an email is delivered to the appropriate email address, it was wiped from the central server, with no back-up database.

That means the only copies are in employee’s email account, which they are responsible for maintaining.

At least a few other county leaders also did not know about the state requirements for public records.

“I’m probably just as guilty. I just was not aware that we were supposed to save all public records,” said Jack Debnam, chairman of the Board of Commissioners.

Each department and public official is responsible for maintaining public records that they create.

Although the server did not keep copies of the emails, they existed in two places. The county used both Microsoft Outlook and Google mail to send and receive business-related emails. Emails would go to and from both accounts, meaning an individual would have to delete an email from both their Google mail and Microsoft Outlook inbox to completely get rid of it.

“If they want to delete a message, they have to delete in two different places,” Wooten said.

The violation of the public records law is what prompted the county to hurriedly change its email system last week. There had never been a problem before so county leaders did not realize the flaw in its email system.

“It has come to my attention that our current email system does not archive old or deleted emails,” said Wooten in an email to county employees on June 12. “Emails are public record and must be retained in accordance with state records retention guidelines. Our IT Department is working to identify a system we can purchase and install that would archive all emails ... Until this system is installed, please remind all employees to not delete any emails since these are public record and must be retained in accordance with state guidelines.”

The county signed a contract for Google’s application for governments on Wednesday, June 13, and it was implemented that following Friday. The Google application, which archives emails for the required three years, will cost $31,000.

“It’s a small price to pay really,” Wooten said. The county previously paid nothing for its email system.

The incident has also caused the county to review its written policies and procedures. Jackson County does not have its own public records policy on the books, which Wooten called unfortunate.

However, several years ago, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office adopted a public records policy written by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. The guidelines essentially outline state public records law, including the portion of the law that requires public entities to maintain emails and other communications for at least three years.

“The county is going to have a similar policy in place in the very near future,” Wooten said.

The county will also hold training sessions for employees who want to learn more about the public records law. Just last November, the Department of Cultural Resources visited Jackson County and offered a program on the subject. However, it was not mandatory.

Typically, Wooten said, they simply address any problems as they arise at their monthly staff meetings. The county doesn’t have specific or yearly re-training courses to review local or state policies.

The state sheriff’s association only began offering training, which included a review of public records law, for new sheriffs who were elected in 2006 or after.

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