Don’t worry, Michael Kerstetter. We believe you. You didn’t mean to use the official seal of the city of Nashville to give extra authority to your campaign mailing. And you weren’t trying to misuse government resources by encouraging people to contact you via the Metro Council office or your Metro email account. You just weren’t thinking. Really—your ignorance is frighteningly persuasive.
But as campaign season starts to heat up, let’s just take a moment to set the record straight so everyone’s on the same page (and it’s not city stationery). It is illegal to use government property—including telephones and email—for personal or business purposes. Which means you can’t conduct campaign business through the council office.
Kerstetter, a term-limited Metro Council member from Antioch now running for a spot on the school board, is only the most recent in a long line of election season offenders. His infraction? Sending a postcard to regular voters that solicited their opinions about Metro schools—and urging anyone with questions to contact him at his home phone number, the Metro Council office phone number or his Metro email address. Though he paid for the campaign card himself, he certainly invited respondents to use government employees as his personal campaign staff. Oh, and he included the city seal on the envelope next to his “Councilman” title.
That last part—though it lent a bogus imprimatur of officialdom to the correspondence—may not have been a violation, says Karl Dean, Metro legal director. “The seal is not really controlled by the city. People don’t come to us for permission to use it,” he says. “It’s sort of like the American flag.” (Incidentally, Dean adds, no one knows why the seal features an American Indian holding a skull Hamlet-style.) The other rules are pretty clear, though. “You should not use Metro email or telephones for private activities such as business or campaigning,” Dean says, refusing to comment specifically on Kerstetter’s mailing because he hasn’t seen it. “Certainly, giving it out as a way of contacting the campaign is not something you can do.”
As usual, council legal director Don Jones—a nearly 30-year veteran of Metro government who this week announced his transition into retirement—provides a legal interpretation that’s almost the inverse of Dean’s. “We generally advise all [council members] not to use the seal” on campaign mailings, Jones says. “They will use the council office number, and I’m not sure that’s illegal,” he adds. He and Dean do agree, however, that city email accounts are strictly off-limits for personal or campaign use.
Maybe it’s the conflicting legal advice that has Kerstetter so confused. He says he wasn’t trying to give himself an unfair advantage in the school board race or misuse taxpayer resources. The man was just trying to poll the electorate. “I wouldn’t go out and purposely violate the law,” he tells the Scene. “I want to find out what the people of Nashville think about education. What is wrong with that?” Kerstetter says he’ll be more careful with future campaign mailings but defends his effort to find out exactly what a school board member does. “The point is, getting into something and understanding what you’re getting into,” he says. “And hopefully not breaking the law while doing it.”
City employees running for office should consider themselves warned. For that matter, so should residents of school board District 2.