City responds to questions about public records, noise callers

The city of Greensboro and YES! Weekly have been going back and forth about public records for a while now, discussing what qualifies a public information especially in the wake of our cover story about police surveillance of activists. We've been going back and forth about whether the names of people filing noise complaints is public record. Who cares? We think it's worth knowing if all the calls complaining about Greene Street club are coming from just one or two people. Plus if it's public record, the city would be required to release it.

To try and sort things out, our news editor Jordan Green and Greensboro/Guilford County reporter Eric Ginsburg sat down with City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan, Police Attorney Jim Clark and City spokesperson Donnie Turlington on June 10. One of the topics for discussion: Why did the police department release the name of a 911 caller to us in the Sebastian Village case but not the names of people who called about Greene Street, even though both were noise complaints?

After reviewing the state's general statutes governing public records (available here, specifically C and D), we reached some areas of agreement. North Carolina Press Association lawyer Amanda Martin told YES! Weekly that the names are a matter of public record according to the statutes, but after careful review of the ordinance with Clark and Shah-Khan, I am pretty confident that they're accurately interpreting the statute. 

While the names of the callers don't have to be released, it will become public record in this case once it is given to Greene Street's lawyer as part of the discovery for pending litigation between the city and the club over the noise ordinance. Until then, the city's hands are tied. YES! Weekly requested a copy and the city agreed to release it unless the court issues a protective order (which seems unlikely). 

We also agreed that the statute specifically protects the identity of "complaining witnesses" using 911, and that if a complaint came to the city through another avenue (as they sometimes did prior to the noise debate last year) it is public record. The city is currently reviewing our request to see if complaints came in outside of the 911 system. 

As for the discrepancy in when the city provided a caller's name: At the time, Shah-Khan said sometimes "the left hand doesn't always know what the right hand is doing," but after Clark went back and reviewed what happened, he provided a more detailed explanation on Monday. Below is the full text of his response, and the emphasis is mine. 

"I have looked at the matter, and what I found is that Susan Danielsen released the name mistakenly.  At the time of your earlier PIRT request for 911 information coming from noise complaints, Susan reached the same conclusion that you did – that G.S. 132-1.4 did not apply to reported civil violations.  Since this was a new situation, and Susan believed that she was very clear about her understanding of the statute, she released the information in good faith.  The legal question of applicability of G.S. 132-1.4 as it related to noise calls was not settled, as it had not been addressed by an interpretation from any attorney in the City Attorney’s Office.  Susan understandably viewed the disclosure as a simple, routine matter.  However, as we discussed, the applicability of G.S. 132-1.4 needed to be considered, which required a legal interpretation.  Susan acted in good faith to comply with the City’s procedures for routine release.

Since then, of course, the City Attorney’s Office has researched the matter and given its advice, which as you know is that 911 caller identities are confidential for the reasons we explained during our meeting about a week ago.  With this in mind, we believe the earlier mistaken disclosure was inadvertent, and we also think that it is very unlikely to have negative consequences for the parties involved or the caller.

Thank you for meeting with us and giving us a fair opportunity to explain our reasons and analysis for why the information must be withheld.  Frankly, we’re quite often frustrated ourselves, when it comes to the application of State laws concerning confidentiality.  We frequently run into times where more information available to the public would help put to rest fears concerning the lack of openness in GPD or government operations in general.  However, to the extent such disclosure conflicts with State laws, we are bound to follow the law as best we understand it. 

If I can be of further assistance, please let me know!  Hope you had a great weekend.

Best regards, Jim"

As soon as the the results of our inquiry about noise complaints about Greene Street outside of 911 calls  and the names made available in the discovery are public, we will publish them. Stay posted.

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