Finally the Greensboro City Council used some common sense and showed some backbone on Tuesday, July 19, when faced with a room full of advocates.
Body-worn camera videos were not on the meeting’s agenda, but it is what the City Council spent the largest portion of the meeting discussing, after it was brought up during speakers from the floor.
The discussion of the body-worn camera video completely overshadowed the main item on the agenda, which was proposed bond referendum for November. There was no discussion of the $126 million in bonds the council plans to put on the ballot in November. Each of the four proposed bonds passed without comment.
But there was plenty of comment about the body-worn camera videos as speakers from the floor once again wrested the meeting out of the hands of the City Council.
Lewis Pitts and Rev. Cardes Brown were joined by about 100 people in favor of having the council pass a resolution opposing the state body-worn camera video law and passing a new ordinance that would declare the body-worn camera videos public records, in complete contradiction of the state law that goes into effect Oct. 1, as well as the policy the City Council passed in May.
In the past, the City Council has often caved in to large groups demanding that it oppose various and sundry bills passed by the state. But now that the General Assembly has adjourned for the year, it appears the City Council has realized that poking a stick in the eye of the legislature is not the best way to get along with the elected body that controls its very existence and much of its funding.
What makes the entire situation surreal is that Greensboro police officers have been using body-worn cameras for three years and, up until May of this year, the city had no official policy on how to handle the videos.
In the opinion of City Attorney Tom Carruthers, body-worn camera videos were part of a police officer’s personnel file and therefore could not be released without the City Council voting that it had to be released in order to maintain public confidence, which is an extremely high standard.
In fact, in three years, only one body-worn camera video has been released and that was the video of now former Greensboro Police Officer Tim Bloch shooting and killing Chieu Di Thi Vo. That video was released in May after the City Council voted that to “maintain public confidence” in the Police Department the video should be released.
With the same vote the council passed a policy that classified the body-cam videos as personnel records in some instances and criminal investigative records in others, giving people in the videos the right to view them and giving the City Council the authority to release videos to a third party. Until the state law goes into effect, this is the policy that Greensboro is using, although the City Council has not considered any other requests to view videos.
The new state law gives the Greensboro police chief the authority to allow people in the video to view it, but for a video to be released to a person in the video or a third party, a Superior Court judge has to approve it.
Councilmember Justin Outling, who, along with Mayor Nancy Vaughan, crafted the city policy, said the city policy is more transparent than the state law.
Whether a majority of the City Council, which meets three times a month, is more likely to release a video, or a Superior Court judge, who works five days a week, is a matter of opinion.
It’s my opinion that under the state law a person has a better chance of getting a video released than under the City Council policy. Later this fall we’ll have more data because, so far, the City Council policy has been in place for two months and one video has been released. If by December one more than one video has been released by a judge, that would be indication that the state law might be more transparent.
What is not open to debate is the fact that in the over three years that the Greensboro police officers have been equipped with body-worn cameras, not a single person has challenged in court the legal opinion that the body-worn camera videos are personnel records. The most obvious reason for that would be that court cases are not televised and Greensboro City Council meetings are. If you challenge the opinion in court, you may or may not get a mention in the media; if you challenge the opinion at a City Council meeting, you get to be on television and sometimes on the front pages of newspapers.
What is also not open to debate is that for over three years, until May of this year, the City Council had no policy to release body-worn camera videos.
The City Legal Department ruled that the videos were personnel records, among the most confidential records in the city’s possession. The only way a personnel record can be released is if the City Council and the city manager agree it is necessary to maintain public confidence. People in the video had no right to see the video. The only people who could see the video other than the officer and his supervisors were people in the video who had been charged with a crime. So according to the procedure the city had been following for three years, criminals had the right to see the videos but law-abiding citizens did not.
The City Council was asked by Pitts to pass a resolution opposing House Bill 972, the body-cam video bill, which was sponsored by Rep. John Faircloth of High Point, passed by the legislature and signed by the governor. He also asked that the City Council pass his proposed ordinance on body-cam videos that stated the videos are public records.
Speakers constantly make requests of the City Council and they are routinely ignored, but in this case Pitts had the Beloved Community Center backing him, which caused the City Council to discuss his request for over an hour and take a vote on it.
Councilmember Yvonne Johnson, who has been on the City Council the entire three years that the city had no policy that would allow people outside the Police Department and criminal justice system to view a video, made the motion to pass the resolution and policy provided by Pitts, classifying the videos as public records.
Outling, who is an attorney with Brooks Pierce, asked Carruthers if the city had the authority to overrule state law. Carruthers said, “We do not have any ability or right to overrule state law.”
Carruthers added, “The city cannot declare criminal investigative records public records. The city has no ability to declare personnel records public records. These are realities and, because of these realities, the proposed ordinance cannot achieve the transparency that it attempts to seek.”
Outling noted that to pass Pitts’ ordinance would not only subject the City Council to committing misdemeanors, it would be directing city employees to engage in conduct that is a misdemeanor.
Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter, who was also on the City Council the entire three years that the city had no policy, said, “I am totally against House Bill 972.”
Vaughan, who had several times told the audience they had to keep quiet or she would clear the room, which allowed the City Council to discuss the matter without being shouted at by people in the audience in support of Pitts’ proposal, said “I don’t like HB 972. But I don’t know if sending another resolution up to Raleigh is going to do any good. It seems to be a waste of time at this point.”
Vaughan noted that the legislature wasn’t in session so there was absolutely nothing that could be done about the law and also that the city had several laws that they wanted to work with Faircloth on getting passed in the next session. She said, “My solution is to work with Rep. Faircloth.”
She added that in her opinion the ordinance proposed by Pitts took away people’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy.
Johnson agreed to drop the ordinance part of the proposed resolution but insisted that she wanted to pass a resolution opposing HB 972.
Councilmember Tony Wilkins said, “What is the chance of them repealing HB 972? Zero; no chance.”
Carruthers noted that a legislative study committee had been working on HB 972 for over 12 months and there was incredible disagreement between urban police departments and rural sheriff departments on how the videos should be handled. He said that there were complex legal issues involving constitutional rights that had to be reconciled. He said, “At this point there is a law and it is a step forward.”
Councilmember Mike Barber said that when the city first equipped officers with body-worn cameras he wanted the videos to be streamed on the internet. He said, “I feel like that’s where we’ll be 10 years from now. Technology will demand it and people will demand it.”
He said that in the past year he has learned that, as a public official, it’s better not to tell the legislature how he feels about certain issues. He said, “The state has absolute control over whether this municipality exists or doesn’t exist.” And noted that the city relied on the state for funding.
Barber said it was counterproductive, “To pass meaningless resolutions that have zero impact.”
Judging from the comments made by Vaughan and Barber, at least those two members of the council noticed that Greensboro didn’t receive state funding that other cities did.
Johnson eventually got her motion voted on and the resolution opposing HB 972 was voted down, with Johnson, Hightower and Abuzuaiter voting in favor of needlessly annoying the legislature by passing a meaningless resolution and Vaughan, Barber, Outling, Wilkins and Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann voting against further annoying the legislature for no good purpose. Councilmember Jamal Fox was absent.
Outling then made a motion that the City Council take the approach suggested by Vaughan and set up a meeting with Faircloth, and that passed unanimously.
The City Council took a, break came back and, with no discussion, passed the bond language to put four bonds totaling $126 million on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Barber and Wilkins voted against the $25 million housing bond. And Wilkins cast the lone no vote against the $38.5 community development bond, the $34.5 million parks and recreation bond and the $28 million transportation bond.
An indication of just how much thought and planning has gone into these bond proposals is that somehow, between the council work session on Monday, July 19, and the Tuesday night council meeting – without a meeting or a vote – the parks and recreation bond increased by $2 million and the transportation bonds decreased by $2 million.
The vote by the City Council set the bond categories and the bond language to go on the ballot, but the amounts can be reduced and categories could be eliminated.
The estimated tax increase to pay for the bonds is 3.35 cents in fiscal year 2017-2018.
The City Council set a public hearing on the bonds for August 1. The vote on the final version to be placed on the ballot will occur after the public hearing. So if anyone at the public hearing presents a good idea, the City Council will have a few minutes to research the proposal, study it and vote on it.
This bond started off with a discussion of an approximately $40 million bond, then it ballooned up to about $200 million, was reduced to $104 million, shot back up to $178.7 million, and this week was reduced to $126 million. So it’s safe to say that the $126 million is not set in stone, particularly since $2 million was moved from one category to another before the meeting.
Sometimes people say things at City Council meetings that are so funny you wonder why nobody is laughing. A group of anti-Trump protestors came to the meeting to protest that their civil rights were violated at the Trump rally because they were not allowed to block a street, not allowed to cross the street to harass Trump supporters and evidently not allowed to possess illegal drugs while protesting.
The group showed a video of the group’s interaction with the police, where you could clearly hear the police ordering the protestors to clear the street and get back on the sidewalk. Nothing happened to the protestors who complied with the order; however, those who resisted – and one man in the video appeared to flail out at police with something in his hand – were forced down to the ground and handcuffed.
Deputy Chief James Hinson, who was visible in the video, at the City Council meeting explained that the people who were arrested had refused to follow a lawful order from the police to clear the street. He said 12 people were arrested, including three on drug charges.
One of the anti-Trump protestors at the meeting asked the City Council to ban Trump from coming to Greensboro.
Evidently the protestor believes his rights are violated when he is not allowed to block a public street but Trump’s rights wouldn’t be violated by banning him from a city because of his political views.