Politics & Government

Worried about leaks, Charlotte council members suspected media bugged city meeting rooms

Former council member Michael Barnes (center), speaks during a City Council meeting.
Former council member Michael Barnes (center), speaks during a City Council meeting. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Last fall, some Charlotte City Council members were so concerned about local media reporting on their private conversations during closed session meetings that they asked city staff to investigate whether reporters were bugging them.

The issue has long rankled city officials, but a September story in the Observer about negotiations between the city and former police Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick was particularly frustrating to former at-large council member Michael Barnes. Kerrick, who shot an unarmed man in 2013, resigned from the city in October 2015 after receiving nearly $180,000 in back pay and benefits.

In an email to his colleagues, Barnes pleaded for quiet. He was frustrated that details of the negotiations were published “practically before we left the building.”

Council member Al Austin replied: “I here (sic) you. However, there was so much detail, I still question whether or not listening devices are left intentionally.”

Barnes emailed back: “I’ve thought about that too. I recall the audio equipment lights blinking in CH-14 (a meeting room) during one of our closed sessions last year. We never confirmed anything, but it made me wonder. I’ll check with staff on this.”

City Attorney Bob Hagemann said he would not comment on whether the city ever searched meeting rooms for listening devices, per a request from Barnes.

Almost all city business must be conducted in the open. Council members are allowed, however, to meet in closed session to discuss litigation, economic development and personnel issues.

Council members often go into closed session meetings during the course of regular business meetings. In the past, they would remain in a room where they were meeting, and the media and other people would be required to leave.

Council members now often go to a different room entirely, in part to ensure their conversations aren’t being secretly recorded or broadcast.

Observer editor Rick Thames said the newspaper has never had a listening or recording device of any kind in a room where council members were holding a closed session.

“We don’t bug rooms,” he said. “We let people know when we record them.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs