Charlotte leaves the public in the dark when it comes to records, interviews and access

The city of Charlotte has become less transparent with the public and media, giving fewer opportunities for reporters to interview high-level officials, and leaving records requests unfulfilled for years.
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The City of Charlotte's progress in providing public records and open government has lagged in recent years, according to data analyzed by WBTV.(Andy Weber, Axios Charlotte)
Published: Mar. 13, 2023 at 9:58 AM EDT

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - What’s happening: It’s Sunshine Week, which promotes open government and access to public information. Reporters at Axios and WBTV have been pushing local agencies for records, access to meetings and interviews for years.

  • Every record created in conducting public business is a public record, whether it’s an email, text message, calendar invite or draft policy. The only exceptions under state law are confidential records, like information in someone’s personnel file.
  • But the city of Charlotte is notoriously opaque.

Why it matters: The city oversees departments that directly impact residents, including police, fire, water and housing. Unless citizens are following every single City Council meeting, they likely learn what’s happening in their city through the media.

  • When government isn’t transparent with us, the public is in the dark, too.

What they’re saying: Brooks Fuller, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, tells Axios and WBTV that citizens he helps are often dejected after taking time out of their day to access public records.

  • “I think it weighs on their interest in participating in democracy if they don’t think that democracy is being responsive to them,” says Fuller, also an assistant professor of journalism at Elon University.

The other side: The city struggles to keep up with an influx of records requests, despite improvements in efficiency in its process including hiring more people, city spokesman Lawrence Corley said in an email. Corley says they make officials available when possible.

Public safety impacts

The lack of transparency can be a detriment to public safety or health.

Zoom in: In October 2021, after a water main broke on Remount Road, Charlotte Water failed to immediately communicate an advisory for residents to boil their water.

  • An initial advisory more than four hours after the break said those who experienced a loss of water or low water pressure “can” boil water for human consumption out of an abundance of caution. But they didn’t indicate until later that residents “should” boil their water.

WBTV’s months-long investigation into CATS highlighted the safety issues that transit employees and bus riders faced.

  • Bus operators told WBTV that buses frequently broke down and posed safety risks, while former CATS CEO John Lewis often downplayed operators’ concerns.
  • Records WBTV obtained backed up the bus drivers’ version of the story.

Public officials are less available

Some of the city’s top leaders no longer hold regular media calls. The city’s press representatives often don’t make other employees available for interviews, either.

Details: Last year, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department announced that Chief Johnny Jennings would stop giving weekly press conferences and instead do them “as needed.” The department also said it would grant interviews on a case-by-case basis.

  • CMPD claimed the change was intended to focus on filling a backlog of public records requests.
  • Data Corley shared show CMPD held the same number of press conferences and slightly more interviews in the six months after its revised media policy than the six months before.

In the summer of 2021, Mayor Vi Lyles held several media question-and-answer sessions, which were intended to be monthly. But they were soon discontinued.

Corley says those sessions were held because the Government Center was closed to the public and media during COVID-19. Once the building reopened, they were no longer needed, he says, because the public could approach elected officials after meetings.

  • Lyles has conducted at least 25 interviews over the last six months, per Corley.
  • The city has hosted media availabilities recently, he added, “on issues that previously were either press releases or statements,” including on the resignation of former Charlotte Area Transit System CEO John Lewis and a Charlotte Water settlement.

Between the lines: The city tends to control when and how it gets its own messaging out.

  • Two days before Christmas, city staffers held a virtual press conference to reveal the results of a study on the failures of the CATS management structure.
  • CATS sent the report to journalists 10 minutes before the news conference. CATS leaders only answered a handful of questions, and they never turned on their cameras.

Stalling on public records

Flashback: In 2019, Charlotte launched a new webpage that allows anyone to file and track records requests in an effort to streamline the process and make public information more available.

But over the last two years, some of the employees who worked on the records portal left the city for new jobs, and the office has been understaffed. Now, it sometimes takes staffers weeks or even months to confirm a records request has been received.

By the numbers: Since July 1, 2022 there have been 872 requests submitted through the city website. Around half have been partially or fully fulfilled.

  • 76% of the requests that remain unfulfilled have been open for more than 30 days.

WBTV and Axios have more than 30 unfulfilled records requests languishing within Charlotte’s fulfillment process, the majority of which were filed in 2021 and 2022.

Our outstanding requests include:

  • April 2020: Messages between city leaders about the city’s response to Covid-19.
  • March 2020: Text messages and emails sent from four city leaders over two weeks in 2018.

Emails, text messages and other communications between elected leaders and city staffers can take more than a year to be fulfilled.

  • Last week, Axios received communications about Norfolk Southern that we requested more than 13 months ago.
  • In 2021, a WBTV investigation revealed that only a fraction of requests for emails between the city’s highest officials have been released. Particularly, emails, texts and records from the Economic Development office and director Tracy Dodson rarely see the light of day.

The city also appears to be falling short of its own transparency goals set forth in its most recent budget. Those include:

  • Responding to at least 90% of records requests within two days.
  • Completing at least 90% of records requests received within 30 days.

Charlotte also budgeted for new employees and software upgrades to “enhance public records response.” Those positions sat vacant for months.

  • A city spokesperson said a new administrative position focused on records production was hired one week ago and a part time job was added to help produce council meeting minutes.

The city has not published its new budget yet showing the results from last year. The information in the records portal indicates those targets weren’t hit.

Of note: Corley pointed out the city’s web portal doesn’t include all records requests. Emails and even phone calls asking for information can count as records requests and not be added to the system.

  • The city has seen an increase in records requests in recent years, increasing from 561 in 2018 to 1,736 in 2022, per Corley.
  • “There are a number of requests that are extremely difficult and time consuming,” he wrote.

Yes, but: There are ways to improve the process.

  • In the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County, where Axios’ Alex Sands previously was a reporter, there was a public terminal for anyone to access the emails of local officials.
  • Fuller praised Buncombe County for creating an open checkbook system for residents to see how taxpayer money is being spent.

Of note: No matter the size of the request, these are still public records pertaining to the government funded by residents’ tax dollars. Any member of the public can request them for any reason.

The bottom line: Open records should matter to every resident who wants a better functioning and more transparent government, Fuller says.

  • “They have all the information at their fingertips so that they can use it, make sense of it, take it back into their communities and turn it into public action,” Fuller said.