February 14, 2013
Last week we reported that Greensboro
had given out confidential police reports to Yes! Weekly. This week we found that the city is not giving out public records to the public when they request them, and not notifying the public of City Council meetings as required by law.
In other words, the city run by Mayor Robbie Perkins and City Manager Denise Roth is more opaque than transparent.
Last week, Claire Stone made a request for the salary history of Board Chair of the Transportation Advocacy Center Elizabeth James, the director of the Greensboro
Transit Authority – what most of us refer to as the bus system. The response that she received from the city Human Resources Department should be shocking, but it is just par for the course. This current administration doesn't seem to be concerned with obeying the law.
The reply that she received from Kevin Adcock, a compensation consultant with the Human Resources Department, states, "Re: your public information request, the current salary for Elizabeth James $91,544. Unfortunately, the salary history for the last 10 years is not a matter of public record. Only the current salary is a matter of public record. We regret (sic) are unable to complete your request in its entirety as submitted."
For most people that would have been the end of the conversation, but Stone sent the email to me and asked if I could help. I emailed her back a copy of the law governing personnel records in North Carolina that lists the parts of an employee's personnel record that are public records. 160A-168 (b) "(7) Current salary (8) Date and amount of each increase or decrease in salary with that municipality."
So it isn't a matter of interpretation; the complete salary history, not just for 10 years, is public record. But if Stone had not forwarded the email to me, or hired an attorney, she would have had no way to get the information since the person working for the city was either not kept up to date or perhaps doesn't like to release salary information.
The confidential information that was released to Yes was either another mistake or an attempt to embarrass Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter.
It would appear that the city has very little regard for the law regarding public records. One would not expect every city employee to know which personnel records are public records, but you would expect the person with the responsibility to release those records to know.
It makes you wonder how many other people have requested salary information about city employees and been turned down.
Adcock did not return a telephone call to ask him why he wasn't releasing records that by law he was required to release, but Assistant City Attorney Jamiah Waterman did call back and said that there was no question that salary history was a public record and should be released to anyone who asks for it. He also said that he didn't know why the Human Resources Department was not releasing that information. He said, "It's clearly public record. A mistake was made." He noted that Stone had since been sent the information she had requested.
It's good that the city attorneys know the law, but if the people actually controlling the records are not aware that people have a right to public records then there is a huge problem.
In one case the person handling a public records request for police information wasn't
aware that not all police information is public record and in this case the person handling the public records request didn't know that salary history was a public record.
Then there is the problem with providing notice of meetings of the Greensboro
City Council. It seems so simple. In cases where the City Council is invited to a function in their official capacity and it appears that a majority of the City Council might be present, for the past 20 years the city has simply sent out a notice stating just that. People who are on the list to receive notices about meetings receive an email that states that the City Council has been invited to a luncheon hosted by the board of the Greensboro
Historical Museum or the Chamber of Commerce, or that a groundbreaking will be held where the majority of the council might be present.
But this year the city decided that having the entire council gathered in the council chambers for the official City Council photograph was not official business and therefore did not constitute a meeting that had to be announced and open to the public.
City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan said in his opinion it was not a meeting to conduct official council business and therefore the public could be excluded and no notice of the meeting was required.
The definition in the North Carolina open meetings law is broad. It states. "'Official meeting' means a meeting, assembly, or gathering together at any time or place or the simultaneous communication by conference telephone or other electronic means of a majority of the members of a public body for the purpose of conducting hearings, participating in deliberations, or voting upon or otherwise transacting the public business within the jurisdiction, real or apparent of the public body."
So according to the official ruling by Shah-Khan, having the official photograph of the City Council taken is not "otherwise transacting the public business."
On Monday, Feb. 11, the City Council was invited by North Carolina A&T State University to a discussion on extending Florida Street through the A&T farm. Extending a city street is certainly city business, and if the City Council decides to do it, the taxpayers will pay an estimated $3.2 million for this one quarter-mile of street. But the city determined that the City Council "gathering together" at a public hearing to discuss a street extension was not official city business and no notice of that meeting was required. The meeting was, of course, open to the public, but that was because of A&T not the City of Greensboro
Seven of the nine members of the Greensboro
City Council were present.
In one way the city is correct in its assessment of the situation: No one is going to sue the city because the meeting with A&T was not properly noticed. With the incident of the official photograph, they let me in because I was complaining to everyone that came through the door, and no one that was locked out hired an attorney and took the city to court.
With the denial of the public records request for salary history, most people don't know they should get in touch with The Rhino Times about such matters. Almost no one is going to hire an attorney and pay a couple of hundred dollars to have that attorney write the city attorney a letter to point out the obvious legal error.
So although the laws are there to protect the public, the city staff, who is paid by the public, is not obeying the law because there really isn't anyone around to make them. The City Council itself doesn't seem to care whether the law is obeyed or not.
It is a great example of why the open meetings law and the public records law need sanctions. If anyone violating the law could be fined even $50, it would be an incentive for government employees to follow the law....continued on page 2