Charlotte defies public records law as emails remain hidden for years

Updated: Apr. 13, 2021 at 5:38 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Hundreds of records requests submitted to the City of Charlotte remain unfulfilled, a WBTV analysis shows.

The requests, some of which date back more than two years, sought information regarding some of the most impactful moments in the Queen City since 2019. Every day that city officials continue to withhold the records marks another day where the public is denied access that the city is required to provide by law.

Under the North Carolina Public Records Act, public entities are required to provide public records as “promptly as possible.” However, WBTV identified 19 requests from journalists for emails and other communications that remain unfulfilled that were originally submitted in 2019.

WBTV also identified a pattern of emails and text messages from top city leaders related to economic incentives and deals with private corporations that remain hidden from the public.

“Essentially that is taxpayer money that they’re playing with, so the public has a right to know how their money is being spent,” Axios Charlotte reporter Katie Peralta Soloff told WBTV.

Peralta Soloff is one of many journalists and citizens who has submitted records requests to the City of Charlotte that remain unfulfilled. That includes requests for communication regarding Robinhood, the Big South Conference and the city’s MLS (Major League Soccer) team.

None of those requests have been fulfilled.

“It’s sort of just an assumption a lot of the time that you’re not going to get these records,” Peralta Soloff said.

An analysis of record requests related to emails completed by WBTV show more than half of those requests remain outstanding, partially completed, or closed unfulfilled.

  • There have been 48 requests for emails from City Manager Jones. Just ten have been fulfilled.
  • There are 24 requests for emails from Assistant City Manager and Economic Development Director Tracy Dodson. Three have been fulfilled.
  • 12 requests for emails from city leaders ask for the keyword “Tepper” as in Panthers’ owner David Tepper. None have been fulfilled even though some of the requests date back to 2019.
  • Some of the unfulfilled requests for emails and other communications are about some of the biggest events to happen in Charlotte since 2019 including the Republican National Convention, the incident where protesters were trapped by tear gas and the Eastland development.

WBTV reached out to Charlotte city councilmembers with the findings from our analysis to ask whether the city’s continued withholding of information was acceptable.

Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt was the only member who responded via email.

“Some of the requests lack specificity, which really adds to the time it takes to do the searches,” Eiselt wrote. “I do agree that it would be reasonable to give you a response as to when it is anticipated that a request could be fulfilled, based on the scope of the request.”

WBTV also asked members of Charlotte’s Communication and Marketing Team why email records take so long to produce, what the process is for releasing those records and whether the city would commit to increased transparency.

In an email response spokesperson Cory Burkarth did not answer the vast majority of questions that were posed.

Nowhere in the entirety of the city’s response was the issue of records requests for emails addressed.

“A review of public records request fulfillment data by the City Clerk’s records management staff shows that the City has improved the timeliness of records fulfillment consistently since 2019,” Burkarth wrote.

Burkarth went on to write the city was made a concerted effort to improve processing public record requests and there are approximately 60 employees who serve as records liaisons to “assist the City Clerk’s office with our public records processes.”

The email did not say how many of those employees specifically work on processing requests for emails. Members of the city’s communication team previously told reporters at WBTV that requests for emails often go through IT staff, although there is no mention of that in the email.

Burkarth also provided data on how many records requests have been completed between 2019 and 2021 but the numbers do not reflect requests for emails and other communication.

“We are proud of the progress that we’ve made to speed up the production of public records requests. Members of the public and members of the media have a right to have access to government documents and the City of Charlotte will continue to ensure that we remain a transparent organization,” Burkarth wrote.

WBTV emailed, called and text representatives at the city to try and obtain more specific responses to our questions but no additional information was provided by the time this article was published.

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