City keeps citizens in the dark, and is proud of it

Even when the city gets it, it doesn’t get it.

The City of Charlotte essentially admits that it broke the law, but then defiantly goes out of its way to say it is not sorry for doing so. All citizens, whom the government belongs to and represents, should demand better. Until we do, we can expect our apathy to be met with more arrogance from 600 E. Fourth Street.

We’re talking about government secrecy, specifically the city of Charlotte’s unnecessary silence around the Democratic National Convention, which will affect nearly every soul who lives or works here, and which is now five short months away.

The Observer requested six months of emails from top city officials related to the convention. After initially balking at releasing certain emails at all, the city later made those available but redacted them so thoroughly that very little of substance could be discerned.

Observer reporters Steve Harrison and Gary Wright, though, obtained some of the original emails and saw what had been redacted. State law appropriately allows the government not to release certain information, including that which could pose a public security threat. Harrison and Wright questioned the city about the propriety of some of the redactions.

In the face of this, City Attorney Bob Hagemann agreed to review what had been blacked out. Hagemann released the emails again Monday, sharing more information than the city had the first time.

“Through that second review, the City has concluded that some of the information that was previously redacted cannot fairly be considered ‘sensitive public security information’ and is not otherwise exempt from public disclosure. That information is now being released” he said in a statement.

The city broke the public records law, in other words, and only came out with more information when the newspaper managed to get copies of the original emails and confront the city with them.

Surely the city regrets not conforming with the law? Uh, no.

“While the City’s initial review may be viewed as having been too conservative,” Hagemann’s statement went on, “the cold hard fact is that there are those that are looking for every advantage in achieving their goal of disrupting and doing harm during the convention. The City does not apologize for being vigilant in attempting to thwart such efforts.”

How should citizens feel when their government conceals information from them, then admits that the law did not allow it to do so, then makes a point of not apologizing for that?

Hagemann is right: Security must be the highest priority surrounding the convention. And the city does its job by redacting information that could jeopardize safety were it to become public. But the city can achieve that without a Nixonian paranoia that undermines trust with the public.

Consider what the city redacted. Things like “Let’s talk” written by Police Chief Rodney Monroe to Deputy Chief Harold Medlock. Complaints around what time a meeting was scheduled. Whether Monroe liked a certain color paint for a police command center.

It’s not so vital, in itself, that the public see “Let’s talk” in an email. It’s what the redaction of “Let’s talk” reveals about the government’s attitude toward the public, and the questions that prompts about what else it is hiding.