Council won’t discuss recordings

by Jordan Green

Ben Holder confronted the Greensboro City Council on May 5 about its lack of disclosure of the circumstances surrounding a series of audio recordings made by a former non-sworn police employee of private citizens without their knowledge.

“I came to the council to talk about the story of the black leaders being taped,” said Holder, an investigative reporter and public safety activist whose civic role is aptly captured in the title of his blog, “Troublemaker.” “I was under the assumption that this council was going to get a full report from the legal staff, the legal staff was going to come back and brief you all, and the words that were said is, ‘We will decide how the information will be disseminated to the public.’” Holder had addressed the council before, on Feb. 3, and it seemed that the council and staff were committed to shedding new light on an episode that appears to be a troubling side story in the long and murky controversy that has enveloped the Greensboro Police Department since June 2005. “I just don’t think we can restore public trust until we get some of this stuff out there, because the citizens pay the bills around down here and they have rights,” said Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat at that meeting. “This is their city government.”

The Greensboro Police Department disseminated a press release in April 2006 stating that a non-sworn police employee had attended meetings with private citizens and recorded them without their knowledge and that the chief had notified those who had been recorded. Press accounts that followed the announcement confirmed that a number of black community leaders had been notified by the chief that they had been recorded. That the one white person notified by the chief was the executive director of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a controversial body set up to examine the 1979 Klan-Nazi killings, only intensified assumptions that a racially motivated surveillance campaign had taken place under the leadership of former Chief David Wray. “We’ll have to contact the persons who were recorded and ask them,” City Attorney Wood said in response to an inquiry by council members in February. “There are two different issues. The first one is why they were being taped, and that gets to be a personnel issue. That can be released by you folks from a recommendation from the manager, but if you’re speaking of the tapes themselves, if those folks want to release those, I would release them to them and let them release them, would be the way I would handle that.” Wood promised to do a “thorough” investigation and “recommend releasing whatever can be released.”

“You’ll do a thorough investigation,” Mayor Yvonne Johnson said. “You will have a meeting with us, and then we’ll decide what can be released.” Then, at-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw spoke. “I certainly think the public is entitled to the information we can make available to them,” Rakestraw said. “How in the world are we going to be able to do this across the city of Greensboro so that the folks will have it just about at the same time so that somebody won’t feel they are being left out of this operation?” Mayor Johnson asked, “Can we do this in a two-to-three week time frame?” “We’ll try,” Wood responded. District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy- Small later said that the council had voted in closed session on March 6 to not release the recordings or any additional information. The meeting took place three days after the council voted to fire City Manager Mitchell Johnson, and some council members said they were so distracted they didn’t remember the closedsession discussion. Bellamy-Small’s recollection contradicts what Mayor Johnson said immediately after the March 6 closed-session meeting in an interview with YES! Weekly. “We talked about releasing them,” the mayor said. “We have to get the person’s permission. That’s in progress.” She added, “Five of us can say, ‘I think it’s in the best interest of the public to release the information, but we’re at risk of being sued.” Wood has declined to comment on the recordings on the basis that they relate to personnel issues and a police investigation. Jill Williams, the former executive director of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the sole white person alleged to have been recorded, made a request to the city for any recordings Vance may have made of her on Feb. 4. The city’s response essentially was, wait. “The city attorney, Terry Wood, is in the process of reviewing all the investigative material, relayed to him by the police department, related to the audio recordings,” wrote Assistant City Manager Denise Turner. “He has deemed that the recordings are part of a personnel file and police investigation. As a result, the Greensboro City Council will have to release the recordings. Once he has completed review of the recordings and other material, Mr. Wood will bring his findings to the council for their action. Let me know if I can assist you with anything in the meantime. Otherwise, I will be in touch after Mr. Wood has discussed the release of recordings with the city council.” Williams has said she does not remember ever meeting Vance. “I think the reason why she hasn’t listened to her tape, [why] they haven’t given her her tape is because shewasn’t taped,” Holder said. “They just told her that. She ain’t ontape. It’s impossible. Cathy Vance was done taping before Jill Williamscame to Greensboro. They just threw that part in there, I guess, tomake it look even more scary than it is.” Bellamy-Small has argued thatno one cares about the taping episode anymore except for Holder. Inaddition to Williams’s request for any tape that may have been made ofher, the episode is a matter of contention in a lawsuit filed earlierthis year by 39 black police officers against the city. “Officers ofthe Greensboro Police Department including defendant [Scott Sanders]targeted for investigation numerous African Americans who wereprominent in Greensboro, including but not limited to black attorneysin private practice, black ministers, black businessmen and blackphysicians, by methods including but not limited to monitoring theiractivities and secretly and illegally recording their conversations,despite the fact that there was neither probable cause nor grounds forreasonable suspicion relating to such persons.” Holder had toremind District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells that she promiseddisclosure in May 2006, as the councilwoman shook her head indisagreement. In the spring of 2006, calls for publicdisclosure about the circumstances surrounding the recordings came fromas high as Patrick Danahy, president and CEO of the GreensboroPartnership, an organization dedicated to recruiting new corporationsto locate in Greensboro. Danahy addressed city council with members ofhis executive committee standing behind him in a show of support. “Therecent allegations of taping conversations of ordinary citizens and ofracial profiling are disturbing to us all,” he said. “It appears thatchecks and balances within the police department have been compromised.

Andin addition, surveillance of private citizens without reason is totallyunacceptable and cannot be tolerated within our community.

BenHolder, who blogs under the moniker of Troublemaker, frequentlyaddresses Greensboro City , which gives him a media platform throughthe city’s archived video recordings and its cable station, Channel 13.(computer video still)

“Westand behind city council and city management in their efforts to fullyinvestigate what has happened, to deal appropriately with any cityemployee who has breached authority or broken the law. We understandthe need for limited public information to protect the investigation,but at the appropriate time will expect full transparency about whathas happened and what will be done about it. We believe that regularupdates on the investigation are necessary. We need to deal with thisissue, make appropriate corrections and move our community forward.” “Thankyou so much for believing what we’ve said all along — that when it’sthe appropriate time you will know what’s going on,” Wells gushed inresponse. “And we appreciate your support.” Wells saidrecently that she didn’t remember the exchange and that the only reasonfor disclosing additional information was to satisfy Holder. “Nobodymay care anymore because it didn’t turn our to be this big-evil-DavidWraywas-spying-on-people story as it was first portrayed,” Holder said.“Maybe that’s why it’s being dropped.” Over Bellamy-Small’sobjections, the council agreed to review a redacted version of theirMarch 6, 2009 closed session minutes to clarify what decision was madeon the disclosure of information about the circumstance surrounding therecordings and release them, and to have Chief Bellamy come beforecouncil in closed session to answer questions about the episode. Holdersaid in a recent interview that he holds little expectation that thecouncil will release any new information to clarify the taping episode,but promised “a bombshell” at the next council meeting on May 19,acknowledging that he has “some recordings.” “I don’t expect the city to do anything until I play my last hand,” he said.