Maybe It’s Not All Johnson’s Fault?

By Anthony | February 12th, 2008 | 8:41 am

Greensboro Politics has posted an interview with Greensboro City Manager Mitch Johnson. One part jumped out at me (emphasis added):

Ryan: Does City Hall have a communications problem?

Mitchell: “Um…. Well, Um… I think based on, based on what’s…. I would say yes. We have not been effective getting a message out and communicating the environment in which we have to work. We constantly hear that we could release information but I also hear from attorneys that I respect that without going through the proper process that it could be breaking the law. You have to understand that if I go against clear advice from a lawyer and in fact I end up breaking the law then I become personally liable.”

Now, I think that Johnson has done a pretty poor job at handling many aspects of the Wray fiasco. But this is a valid point, to an extent. What makes it even more interesting are some revelations from a recent post at The Conservative Alternative, where Sam Spagnola describes events at last night’s town forum with Greensboro Mayor Yvonne Johnson.

Spagnola points out that the forum was moderated by Marsh Prause, an attorney from Smith Moore, the lawfirm that represents the City on recent documents requests that he, Roch Smith Jr. and Joe Guarino are getting the run around on. He goes on to describe what happened when he submitted a question about the RMA report:

I handed my question to the lady who was accepting such things, and I watched as she walked it up to Prause. I watched him read it with a somewhat puzzled look. I watched him put the card down on the table next to him along with the other questions.

We waited and waited. Finally, there was ten minutes left and Prause said that there was enough time to answer all of the questions that had been submitted. Great, I thought. Maybe I’m not getting snowed.

But I was wrong. Eight and one half minutes later, Prause declared that all of the questions submitted had been answered. Cara and I and a few others said “no they haven’t”, but Prause ended the meeting anyway.

So extremely pissed off at apparently being lied to, I immediately approached Prause as people began milling around and told him “you said you asked all of the questions that had been submitted, but you didn’t ask mine.” He said something to the effect that he did ask all of the questions. I said “No, you didn’t. I asked a specific question about the RMA, and you didn’t ask it. I know you received it because I watched them hand it to you and I watched you read it.” He again said something along the lines of having categorized the questions and again saying he asked them all.

If Mitch is indeed following the advice of city lawyers, this makes me wonder if the root of much of the Wray/RMA circus is due to an overprotective legal team. If we could go back two or three years, and replace them with lawyers who don’t try to obstruct the release of documents by pulling stunts like claiming Gardner-Garrity applies when it really doesn’t, would we prevent many of the issues we’ve seen?

Maybe Mitch’s first order of business should be to start getting some second opinions in the legal realm.

10 Responses to “Maybe It’s Not All Johnson’s Fault?”

  1. Roch101 Says:

    You are right on, Anthony. As a leader, Mitch should be able to discern this himself, but that aside, you make an excellent point.

    Mitch is getting some second opinions, from the likes of attorney and City Council person Mike Barber. If he wanted to, Mitch could instruct his legal team, “Don’t just give me the reasons for keeping things secret, if we want to release information, give me the legal justifications for doing so” (there are plenty).

    Even if the legal justification comes down the the catch-all in state law that allows City Council to release information because it is in the interest of restoring public trust, Mitch could be going to the council and saying, “In the interest of restoring public trust, I want you to vote to release the black book,’ the RMA report and the other materials requested by Spagnola, Guarino and Smith.”

    * Not just on this issue, either. When the city passed an ordinance requiring all rental units to be inspected for safety, the wording lead the Inspections Department to believe that they could enter an apartment without the renter’s permission. A clear violation of the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution as decided by the Supreme Court. When I brought this deficiency to the City’s attention as a speaker from the floor at a city council meeting, the City Attorney’s response was to defend the ordinance as perfectly Constitutional. Fortunately, attorney Don Vaughn was on City Council at the time and quickly saw to it that the council approved a change to the ordinance that brought it into compliance with the law by requiring permission of the occupant.

  2. Roch101 Says:

    Uh, about that seemingly unrelated footnote. The comment above had originally included a line about city legal’s motivation being to do the bidding of what they perceive to be the will of city government — not to give a balanced argument for and against certain action. The footnote is an example.

  3. darkmoon Says:

    Having not followed this closely, I can’t comment on the actual issue. But I can say that regardless of having “all the information” out in the public’s hands… I’ll have to side with any legal. Any overprotective legal team, is better than a “underprotective”.

    Personal opinion wise, I’d much rather be withholding documents and piss off a few citizens then create a huge legal fiasco.

    Not being an attorney, I personally would play on the more conservative side as anyone that was being represented and I think that the caution shown by Mitch and city’s legal team is actually a better than naught. It might get some individuals irate, and I think that’s just poor PR form (they could diffuse by saying they can’t comment on it for legal reasons). It might be a catch-all, but knowing people that have been in similar legal situations means that I can see the justification for it.

    Just my two cents.

  4. Spag Says:

    If you are going to hide behind alleged legalities, you need to explain them. If you can’t release the RMA report because you claim it is a protected personnel record, the burden of proof is on you. When you can’t answer a simple question such as “whose personnel file is it?” then it exposes your excuse for what it is.

  5. Doug Says:

    Regarding Mitch’s reference to lawyers’ advice, what is Alan Duncan’s involvement? I’ve seen blog comments that make it wound like he’s the lawyer for the city, county, school administration, GPD, everyone under the sun.

    What’s his real involvement?

  6. Brenda Bowers Says:

    Good question Doug. Who else in Greensboro might the gentleman be working for? Mitch Johnson IMO is only the front henchman. I can understand with the very apparent ineptness of the city legal staff that one would want to have another attorney giving advice, but why this particular attorney? It seems to me that he has too many city and county clients and this does not seem to be a mere coincident. BB

  7. Anthony Says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Roch:

    “Don’t just give me the reasons for keeping things secret, if we want to release information, give me the legal justifications for doing so”

    Yes – there should definitely be more of this. However, there’s certainly more effort involved in that route than in simply playing it safe and keeping everything to themselves.

    Considering Margaret Moffett-Banks experience with her records request – a little effort on the part of the city could have clarified things and helped to find the document she was looking for – it seems as though there’s a bit of an inclination for the city to do the minimal amount of effort possible with regard to the free flow of information.

    darkmoon:

    I hear what you’re saying, and it makes sense. However, being as it’s the city, and not a private entity, there needs to be more balance between protecting the city and serving the people. Right now, everything seems to lean towards trying to protect the city.

    Doug and Brenda:

    It’d be helpful if someone could make some sort of chart or “family tree” showing the relationship between all these lawyers and their clients. I’m having trouble following that aspect of it.

  8. Spag Says:

    I do want to clear Marsh Prause from liability. I spoke with him today, and I am satisfied entirely that his failure to ask the question was not on purpose. He must have shuffled it in with some other questions. Normally, I wouldn’t accept that as an explanation, but after talking to Prause, I am convinced it was simply a mistake and he had no orders or other motive to not ask it.

    He took it well considering that I was a bit hostile last night.

  9. Mitch Johnson Gets It Wrong Again « The Conservative Alternative Says:

    [...] at Plead the First raises the question as to whether this explanation shows that Johnson really does have his hands [...]

  10. Mitch Johnson & Personal Liability « The Spagnola Report Says:

    [...] at Plead the First raises the question as to whether this explanation shows that Johnson really does have his hands [...]

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