WBTV files public records lawsuit against City of Charlotte for council surveys

Published: Jun. 29, 2021 at 3:23 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A lawsuit filed Tuesday by WBTV seeks a court order forcing the City of Charlotte to hand over records related to a teambuilding exercise completed by councilmembers.

The lawsuit, which names the city, Mayor Vi Lyles, all acting councilmembers as well as City Manager Marcus Jones and City Attorney Patrick Baker, is the latest development in a months-long investigation by the station into how they city spent tens-of-thousands-of-dollars with a consulting firm to help councilmembers work together more effectively.

According to the lawsuit, a reporter for WBTV requested copies of surveys completed by Charlotte city councilmembers and administered by the company Ernst & Young.

The city initially denied a request for those records, claiming the survey responses are not public record since they are in the possession of EY.

But the lawsuit points out that the city’s contract with the consulting firm makes all records generated as part of the contract property of the city, not the private firm.

Moreover, the station’s complaint argues, previous N.C. public records cases have ruled public agencies cannot skirt public records laws by hiring independent contractors to retain documents.

Additionally, the lawsuit says, city officials instructed EY staff to destroy records.

Specifically, the complaint cites an email in which an EY employee says one city council member took an early, more detailed version of a survey before it was determined that councilmembers should not be polled on matters of such detail.

In the email cited in the lawsuit, an EY employee said the councilmember’s detailed survey responses would not be “captured or stored” at the direction of Baker, the city attorney.

Destruction of such a public record would be a violation of North Carolina’s public records laws.

The survey responses are especially important because the effectiveness and collaboration of city councilmembers has been called into question several times in recent weeks, including Monday night when Lyles had to stop a council meeting as tempers flared between two councilmembers.

The record request leading to the lawsuit come after an initial WBTV report highlighting the city’s contract with EY.

At the time, WBTV reported the cost of the contract over a three-week period was worth $46,500.

The lawsuit seeks a judge’s order directing the city to produce the withheld records and asks a judge to find that the destruction of records violated state law. The station is also seeking to have its attorneys fees reimbursed, if its lawsuit is successful.

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