Charlotte redacts swaths of Democratic National Convention-related emails

Charlotte ObserverMarch 21, 2012 

The city of Charlotte has released dozens of pages of emails related to the Democratic National Convention in response to an Observer public records request – but most were heavily redacted, giving little or no insight into how the city is preparing for the convention.

The city said the messages were blacked out to prevent the release of sensitive security information, as required by North Carolina’s public records law.

But Mecklenburg Chief District Judge Lisa Bell, who exchanged emails with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Rodney Monroe, said she doesn’t understand why a portion of her email about how the convention would affect the state courthouse had to be redacted.

Charlotte has been cautious about releasing information related to the convention, though the September event will likely transform much of uptown by restricting traffic and access to businesses and other venues.

In an Aug. 25, 2011 email to the police chief and Mecklenburg sheriff, Bell noted that she continues to get questions about what courts will be running during the convention.

The judge’s comment was redacted.

The Observer obtained Bell’s original email. The blacked-out sentence read: “I have heard from various persons within each of your organizations that the federal authorities you are working with expect that courts will be shut down completely.”

About five minutes after Bell sent her email, the police chief wrote the judge back. His entire three-sentence response was blacked out.

The Observer also obtained a copy of Monroe’s response to Bell. The blacked-out response said: “We need to discuss internally. It is not our intent to request a shut down of the Courts. Give me a couple of days to discuss with staff, thanks.”

Four minutes after responding to Bell, Monroe forwarded the exchange to Deputy Chief Harold Medlock, who is heading up CMPD’s convention security.

Monroe typed a short response – the length of about one or two words – to Medlock, which was also blacked out.

Judge questions redaction

Bell wonders what was so top-secret about her email that a portion of it had to be removed.

“I don’t see anything in my email that needs to be kept secret or would be detrimental to law enforcement’s planning for security at the DNC,” the judge said. “All I’m trying to find out is if the courthouse is going to be open or closed during the DNC.”

In response to the Observer’s questions about the redacted messages, Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann said the city would review emails previously released to see if more information could be released to the public. He declined to comment further.

Amanda Martin, an attorney with the N.C. Press Association, said she doesn’t believe a discussion about closing the courthouse should be redacted. She said that at some point before the convention the public will be told whether the courthouse is open.

“Almost by definition, something that is publicly known can’t be a security issue,” Martin said. “They are being far more generous in redacting than I think is warranted.”

Christopher Bellavita, a homeland security expert who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, said emails discussing police tactics or deployments would likely be security exempt.

But he said a discussion about closing a courthouse wouldn’t likely jeopardize the event.

Public costs of convention

The DNC is largely funded by $36 million raised by the local host committee. The city also received a $50 million federal security grant. But local taxpayers are also contributing.

The DNC will use the city-owned Convention Center and Time Warner Cable Arena.

In addition, city staff members are spending large amounts of time working on the convention. City Manager Curt Walton said in a memo last year that the DNC was taking up so much time that it was unlikely the city would have time to study one of Mayor Anthony Foxx’s main issues – the consolidation of city and county governments.

In the run-up to the convention, the city has been slow to release information.

Last year, the City Council authorized Walton to make all DNC-related purchases, without a public vote.

In January, the Observer requested information about what the city was buying with the federal security money. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police initially only provided general categories such as “equipment” and “technology.”

CMPD refused to give more detail, saying information about what it is buying would compromise security.

After further requests from the Observer and other media, the city in February released a more detailed summary of its purchasing.

Charlotte’s policy is different than that of Tampa, which is hosting the Republican National Convention. Tampa’s police expenditures are approved in a public vote by City Council. Council members there have criticized Charlotte’s lack of transparency about the DNC.

City slow to release data

Last year, the Observer requested DNC-related emails from a number of city officials, including Walton, Monroe and other managers.

The city’s initial position was that any email containing any security-related information was exempt. The city released a handful of emails, with most only involving DNC-related events, such as a television show about Charlotte on CSPAN.

The Observer’s position was that all emails are public, and any security information could be redacted.

The city then began redacting DNC-related emails.

A release of emails from Jeb Blackwell, who heads engineering and property management , were almost entirely redacted.

In other requests, the city redacted cellphone numbers of DNC officials. In other instances, subject lines were redacted.

On Sept. 21, U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins emailed Chief Monroe about security training.

“Each year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office is required by the Department to conduct an office-wide security training event to ensure that we are prepared to deal with significant events that may occur within our district,” the top federal prosecutor for Charlotte and the Western District of North Carolina wrote.

“Given the rapidly approaching DNC Convention, it is even more important this year that we prepare ourselves as well as possible to deal with a variety of contingencies.”

Much of what else Tompkins wrote is unknown. More than half of her email has been blacked out.

Tompkins, contacted by an Observer reporter, didn’t want to talk about the email. “It would be inappropriate for me to comment,” she said.

Read more on the upcoming convention at charlotteobserver.com

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