Nagin weighs in on e-mail dispute

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 6, 2009

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Mayor Ray Nagin said Thursday the sanitation director who allegedly gave City Council e-mails to a local attorney could face disciplinary action, if necessary.

City Attorney Penya Moses-Fields this week said Sanitation Director Veronica White gave Tracie Washington CDs with e-mails that White obtained from the city’s technology department. Washington filed a public records request for the e-mails but city protocol dictates a process, including legal review, before documents are released.

A judge temporarily barred Washington from making public the e-mails she obtained and set a March 12 hearing date.

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City Council attorneys say the e-mails may contain sensitive information, including personal or privileged information that could have or should have been redacted before their release. They have not disputed Washington’s or anyone else’s right to get whatever records they’re entitled to under the law.

Nagin, appearing on Fox affiliate WVUE-TV on Thursday, called the situation with White ‘‘unusual’’ and said his chief administrative officer is looking into it. If disciplinary action is warranted, ‘‘we will do that,’’ he said. He did not say what sort of action might be taken.

But Nagin, embroiled in public records dispute of his own with another station, WWL-TV, said he wanted to see the matter resolved and the e-mails released — with any appropriate redactions made — because ‘‘citizens have a right to understand how that branch of government has been operating.’’

WWL-TV, the city’s CBS affiliate, has asked a judge to hold Nagin and the city in contempt for responding to one of its records requests by releasing the mayor’s calendar with parts missing, blacked-out or redacted. City attorneys have cited reasons like security and executive privilege for the withheld portions.

The station also requested Nagin’s 2008 e-mails; the administration had produced just 15 and blamed a faulty server system for its failure to produce more of them.

‘‘We ran into some storage issues,’’ Nagin said. ‘‘It was a temporary problem. The problem has been fixed, and you can have my e-mails, as many as you like.’’

Washington, who’s often involved in civil rights cases, has said she made several requests to the city and disputed any suggestion she went to White for the e-mails. She said that, as far as she knew, all White did was gather the information she’d requested.

White in November publicly sparred with Council member Stacy Head who questioned whether White withheld information on garbage contracts.

The last several months also have seen tension between Nagin and the council over such issues as the budget and pushes by council members for greater openness in areas including the administration’s handling of professional service contracts.

‘‘Here we are, talking about transparency, ’Oh, Mr. Mayor, you need to do this, you need to do that,’ and now we’ve got an issue where transparency has gone to a different level of government, but now we’re told we did it wrong,’’ Nagin said. ‘‘And, you know, we’ll work through it’’

Ed Chervenak, a University of New Orleans political scientist, sees the tension arising from the council trying to fill the leadership void he says has been left by Nagin and the mayor’s office pushing back when the council steps up.

He believes the Nagin administration hasn’t grasped the notion ‘‘it’s a new New Orleans. After Katrina, people want greater accountability, greater oversight.’’

‘‘It just seems like City Hall is in disarray,’’ he added.