City of Charlotte improperly withheld records, appeals court rules

N.C. Court of Appeals rules in favor of WBTV; orders city of pay attorney’s fees
N.C. Court of Appeals rules in favor of WBTV; orders city of pay attorney’s fees
Published: Sep. 13, 2023 at 12:05 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 13, 2023 at 12:19 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The City of Charlotte improperly withheld public records from WBTV, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled in an opinion handed down late Tuesday.

At issue was a request made by WBTV Investigative Reporter David Hodges for records showing the results of a teambuilding survey taken by members of the Charlotte City Council in late 2020.

City staff hired the private firm EY to conduct the survey as part of a bigger effort to improve the working relationship between the then-city council. At the time, WBTV reported the cost of the contract to be $46,500 for three weeks of work.

The city refused to release the records.

WBTV sued the city in June 2021. After the lawsuit was filed, the city produced the survey responses, in June 2022, after more than a year of refusing to do so.

Later, a trial court judge ruled that WBTV’s lawsuit was moot because the city produced the records. As a result, the judge threw out the lawsuit and denied WBTV’s request that the city pay the station’s attorney’s fees.

WBTV appealed, resulting in Tuesday’s ruling.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the records requested by WBTV were, in fact, public records; that the case was improperly thrown out; and that the station is entitled to attorney’s fees.

In her opinion for the court, Judge Allison Riggs rejected the city’s argument that the survey responses were not public records because council members filled them out by clicking a link and completing online forms stored on EY’s server.

“To accept the argument that a hyperlinked survey instead of an attached survey removes the document from the universe of public records requires us to read the statutory language much too narrowly,” Riggs’ wrote. “Such a reading would defeat the purpose of the statute, creating a clear path to hide huge swaths of governmental work from public scrutiny.”

Riggs was joined by Judge Valerie Zachary and Judge Allegra Collins in her ruling.

A spokesman for the City of Charlotte acknowledged a request for comment regarding Tuesday’s ruling but had not substantively responded as of late Wednesday morning.

The amount of attorney’s fees the city will have to pay WBTV will be determined by a trial court judge.