March 07, 2013It's going to get a whole lot more difficult to find out how the city is spending your tax dollars if city staff is allowed to have its way.
Rather than fire whoever was responsible for the Greensboro Communications Department giving confidential police information to the media, Greensboro city staff wants to add a new position and several additional layers of bureaucracy to the public records request process.
Included in the three pages of new rules proposed is a recommendation to create the position of "public information request tracking (PIRT) administrator." The city staff also wants to start charging a fee for large requests.
The PIRT Administrator would be responsible for reviewing and directing all requests to the appropriate departments and ending the process after the records request has been granted or denied.
According to City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan, the PIRT administrator would be involved in every public records request from start to finish, which is not consistent with North Carolina public records law.
The City Manager's Office, the legal department or the Police Department would also be involved in the final approval of which records are released. Shah-Khan said which departments reviewed requested documents would be determined on a case-by-case basis.
"We want to ensure that there's a final look," Shah-Khan said. He said there may be information that a department might not have an issue releasing, but that a lawyer would realize isn't a public record.
Of course, a government trying to be open and transparent would ere on the side of openness and release those records.
Greensboro Mayor Robbie Perkins declined to comment on the specifics of the recommendations city staff is developing, but said he has confidence in Shah-Khan. "One of the strong points of hiring Mujeeb was his work on public records in Charlotte," Perkins said.
Leading up to the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte – while Shah-Khan was a Charlotte senior assistant city attorney – six months of emails requested by the Charlotte Observer were released, heavily redacted. The city claimed the censorship was to protect sensitive security information.
Even an email from Mecklenburg County Chief District Judge Lisa Bell asking whether courts would be operating during the convention was blacked out, something that Judge Bell said she did not understand since it didn't involve any security issues.
Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann later admitted that the city had withheld information that could not be considered "sensitive public security information."
Charlotte shifted its position only after the Charlotte Observer obtained some of the original emails, one of which was about the paint color of a police command center.
So Shah-Khan, who Perkins has such confidence in, decided that the color of a command center and the hours court would be open were confidential security issues that could not be safely divulged to the public.
Under North Carolina public records law, the custodian of a public record is the one legally obligated to make those records available, and the law states, "the public official in charge of an office having public records shall be the custodian thereof."
That makes officials in each department, not a PIRT administrator, the Police Department or the legal department, legally responsible for fulfilling public record requests pertaining to the records their offices keep.
Shah-Khan said that the PIRT administrator is intended to serve as a resource for city employees who may not understand their legal obligations. "Someone who just started with the city last week may not understand," he said. "This enables us to help."
Councilmember Nancy Vaughan expressed ambivalence about the idea of hiring a PIRT administrator. "If the position would expedite matters I could support it," she said. However, she said she was concerned that if the PIRT administrator had to jump through hoops, requests could get tied up in departments.
Vaughan cited the difficulty that she and local blogger Roch Smith had trying to get footage of the July 4 riot in Center City Park from the Police Department. The police refused to grant the request, claiming that the video contained criminal intelligence.
"How can you just blanket say it's criminal," Vaughan said.
State law prohibits a public agency from a denying a request because an otherwise public record contains some confidential information. The agency is required to separate the confidential information from the nonconfidential and grant the request.
Vaughan said one of her questions about the recommendations was whether it would be the City Manager's Office or the legal department that had final say on what gets released.
"My preference would be that it stays with the City Manager's Office," said Vaughan. She said City Manager Denise Roth should stay in charge. "I think she should be the last person to draw the line," she said.
Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter, who was revealed to be a confidential police informant in the emails improperly released by the city, which started all of this, said she and other councilmembers have been pushing for the city to respond to public information requests in a more timely fashion.
"Even though I was kind of involved in one I haven't backed down on that," said Abuzuaiter.