For the Record
Last week, members of Greensboro city staff and the city council invited members of the print media and area bloggers to a meeting down at Melvin Municipal Building to discuss public records — this was in the wake of the Marikay Abuzuaiter scandal resulting from documents released to YES! Weekly by the city.
The city claims that some of the documents we got were protected as confidential information. Abuzuaiter has maintained that she did not send the e-mails that we used to peg her as a confidential informant, though at the meeting City Manager Denise Turner said that there are no plans for an investigation into the matter.
This, they said, was not the purpose of the meeting. The purpose, they said, was to reassure all the interested parties, that, though public records requests would be going through a whole new protocol, requests would still be filled in a “timely” manner, as prescribed by law — this was said while some in the room had been waiting months for a requests to be fulfilled.
We feel it’s necessary to remind the city why we got so many records requests to begin with.
Still, we understand the city’s position: Between the profes sional journos and the blogger corps, the city must process thousands of records requests a year, and we commend them for wanting to get it right, though the results of this overhaul have yet to be seen. But we feel it’s necessary to remind the city why we got so many records requests to begin with.
Public records requests are journalism 101 — the paper trail of the business conducted by government in the name of the citizens, and any city with a healthy media environment gets lots of requests from all quarters.
But in Greensboro, the glut of records requests is a direct legacy of the police scandal back in 2005 that saw police Chief David Wray resign after being locked out of his office, City Manager Mitch Johnson lose his job and the reputations of a dozen or so officers besmirched.
During that episode, the city initially embargoed most information relative to the incidents, leaving the public — and some less reputable news sources — to fill in the blanks with wild speculation, teased-out rumor and grand conspiracies.
It was during this fiasco that many of the city’s bloggers cut their teeth, shouting questions that were either ignored or obfuscated with bureaucratic dodges. The city’s news media, for the most part restricted to reporting on verifiable facts, gave wildly differing accounts of the incident, with plenty of gaping holes that allowed much room for speculation.
With city government in protective mode, public records became, in many cases, the only way to get solid information.
The residue of mistrust remains, even all these years later, as evidenced by the current volume of public records requests, an amount the city says will necessitate a new hire to process.
Hopefully the lesson — that transparency is good for government — will be integrated into new policy.
There was some talk of a database for commonly requested documents. Instead of denying entire documents, the city will begin redacting sensitive areas and then sending them on. And we’ve been told turnaround time will improve.
All this remains to be seen, but if the lessons of the past have been learned, we should have a better public records system — and a better government for it.
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