Opinion

Greensboro tightens its grip on public information

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When Erika Lovett asked the City of Greensboro for a map showing plans for the Vandalia Road project this summer, she received a reply from the city’s public records administrator Katherine Carter saying such a map would not be public record. Carter cited a state law that protects “sensitive public security information” from disclosure. Yet, a map of plans for the Vandalia Road project has been publicly posted on the city’s website since 2014 with an invitation for the public to comment on it.

Whether a homeowner wants to see how a road project is going to affect her property or a reporter wants to examine the history of how a city policy came into existence, access to public records is essential to honest governance. Greensboro is doing a terrible job of it, with staff giving people the runaround, refusing to produce records for no good reason and operating with high-handed secrecy.

Two weeks ago, youth pastor and community organizer C. J. Brinson asked the city for records documenting asset forfeitures received by the police.Carter told him such records were not public because they contain “information about criminal cases.” Once again, Carter cited a state law. The statute Carter cited specifies the types of police records that are secret and those that are public. Among the information the law identifies as public are records of items seized. The statute Carter cited to justify concealment actually says that the information Brinson asked for is public—by law.“

The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people.” – North Carolina state law

When Mayor Nancy Vaughan decided she wanted taxpayers to pay a legal bill she incurred for hiring her own lawyer instead of using the city’s legal team—a bill she had originally told the News & Record she would pay herself—that bill became the public’s business. I went to the city treasurer’s office to get a copy.After being asked to wait while phone calls were made, I was told a copy was available for me in the public relations department. When I went there, Carter handed me a sheet of paper with two sentences on it saying the city would not provide a copy of the mayor’s bill because it was protected by attorney/ client privilege.

Only after I went to City Attorney Tom Carruthers’ office —to impress upon him the folly of withholding from the public a bill the taxpayers had paid—was the invoice released to me. Had the city had its way, the $8,000 bill would have been kept secret.

Actions like this cast doubt on the integrity of city government. The city’s path to adopting a police body camera video policy is another example of just how limitless is Greensboro’s capacity for secrecy and deceit.At a city council public safety committee meeting in March, District 5 council member Tony Wilkins asked city attorney Carruthers if he had any concerns about the risk of adopting a body camera policy that might be contrary to state law.

Here is Carruthers response:

“That is exactly why we are seeking the judicial determination. Because, if we were to implement a policy without a judicial determination, that is the exact risk—that you are violating the law. And that’s not a risk that I’m prepared to recommend, nor is it a risk that the chief of police is prepared to follow.”

District 3 council member Justin Outling added:

“The chief [of police] is supportive of the approach outlined in the policy with the understanding that the city would pursue a declaratory judgment action.”

It was no surprise then that the policy council approved included this final sentence written by Carruthers: “This policy shall only be effective upon a Court of competent jurisdiction ruling upon its legality.”

Did the city get any kind of judicial determination of the policy’s legality as required? No. But that hasn’t stopped Mayor Vaughan from claiming that the policy is in effect nor has it stopped city staff from citing the policy as justification for denying public access to videos recorded by body worn cameras.

Wilkins, for all his serious concern at the time, had no comment when asked about the city forging ahead without the declaratory judgment the city attorney assured him would come. For his part, Carruthers now says that he “disagrees” that a court ruling is necessary for the policy to become effective even though council approved the policy with the condition he wrote: “This policy shall only be effective upon a Court of competent jurisdiction ruling upon its legality.”

Only – upon – a ruling.

Lewis Pitts is a retired civil rights attorney who drafted an alternative policy to the one the city adopted. His take? “It’s simply chronic lying.”

What was the history behind the development of the city’s police body camera policy? Was there ever any sincere intention to get a judicial ruling on its legality or was that a ploy to placate a cautious police chief and a gullible Wilkins?

I’ve asked for emails related to the matter. The city found 600 on its servers two months ago. It has not produced any of these yet. I also learned it did not direct my request to elected officials who likely have additional emails in non-city accounts. Public records administrator Carter said it is “protocol” not to direct public records requests made of the city to its elected officials unless specifically asked to. So I asked, but Carter has not responded to my requests to see what, if anything, she sent to council members.

These are not isolated anecdotes either. There are requests for records that have been languishing for nearly a year. The oldest one has just over 3,000 emails that the city says have been “under review” for eleven months. But in all that time, the city has been unable, incredibly, to clear a single one of these emails for release. This is despite a promise made over a month ago by Public Relations Director Carla Banks, whose department includes public records, to start releasing emails in batches rather than wait until all are reviewed.

Banks made this un-kept promise in a meeting that included city manager Jim Westmoreland who, after hearing a litany of complaints from media people about the city’s handling of public records, promised to have another meeting to follow up in early September. That didn’t happen either. Under Westmoreland’s watch, however, the public records administrator position was cut to part time. These are just more confirmation of city leadership’s hostility towards transparency.

To be fair, not all city staff are infected with a compulsion for secrecy. Space limitations do not allow more than a nod to the department heads and staff who have no qualms about being forthcoming and cooperative. But they are only, unfortunately, notable exceptions to the sinister secrecy that is permeating city government.

The result is that Greensboro has become a city where police secretly seize assets, where the city attempts to keep secret the bills it pays, and where records that would illuminate the intentions and motivations shaping public policy are kept away from the public. City council is complicit in its silence and that doesn’t bode well. !

ROCH SMITH Jr. is the creator and curator of Greensboro 101. He can be reached at curator at greensboro101.com.

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