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Charlotte Fire provides “Obi Wan Kenobi” with records in quick order

Published: Aug. 19, 2021 at 5:58 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A bizarre battle over public records at Charlotte’s Fire Department provides an example of just how quickly some records can be produced. WBTV has reported extensively on how long it takes the City of Charlotte to produce emails and other communications and there appears to be new resolve to fix the issue, although not at light speed.

In a sea of records requests submitted to the City of Charlotte, one stands apart as a “New Hope” for how quickly emails and texts from city employees could be produced to the public.

It was submitted January 22, 2020 by a certain O.W. Kenobi.

But how this request was handled quickly turned to the dark side.

“A false name was given. Obviously Obi Wan Kenobi movie character,” Tim Bell told WBTV.

Tim Bell is an employee at the Charlotte Fire Department and secretary of CFFA 660.

“The address they gave was at this building here at the Union Hall, which we would never give as as an address when we’re asking for FOIA requests, and they they asked for an extreme amount of information,” Bell said.

The request was for “All emails, texts, and photos on the City owned phone for Battalion Chief Shane Nantz.”

As WBTV has previously reported, this is the kind of request that would normally take months if not a year or more to fulfill.

But in this case it took just six weeks to produce 807 pages of texts, pictures and more.

Bell says those records were produced even quicker.

“Within a week they had those published. Obviously, they were hoping something was sensitive in there that would probably embarrass that person,” Bell said.

What makes this even more interesting is that the person whose cellphone records were requested is now suing the City of Charlotte after being cited for termination for what he called false accusations.

But not all requests to Charlotte fire are given the same familial preference.

Bell says he had important records requests he needed for a grievance case that still have not been produced more than a year later.

“That grievance has already been heard, and I still don’t have the documents for that. I was told they’re with the city attorney’s office and that’s where they stay,” Bell said.

In total WBTV found that out of three requests for texts messages related to Charlotte Fire only the Kenobi one had been produced and out of nine requests for emails, seven remain incomplete.

“It seems like when it benefits them, they have no problem with timelines. But when it could be detrimental, that’s when there’s roadblocks,” Bell said.

WBTV reached out to the Charlotte Fire Department about this specific request. In an email response a spokesperson said “That request was pertaining to a personnel issue. The city’s IT Department was in possession of this employees phone and was able to extract the needed information in a timely matter.”

When WBTV asked if they treat other requests the same they wrote “CFD strives to disclose information as promptly as possible in accordance with state law.”

City sources also tell WBTV that the City of Charlotte is looking to add two fulltime positions to specifically help expedite requests for emails, although no city officials would provide an on the record statement about that effort. The timing of the positions depends on whether the city can use American Rescue Plan Act dollars to fund the job.

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