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Asheville City Council member Gordon Smith has mounted a push to release the city-commissioned audit of the Asheville Police Department’s troubled evidence room. In recent e-mails obtained by Carolina Public Press, he cited the city’s contractual right and obligation to obtain the document, even if portions are redacted.
Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore has refused to release his copy of the audit, which was prepared by the private firm Blueline Systems & Services with a $175,000 city contract. Completed in January, the lengthy report is now the subject of a public-records lawsuit filed by Carolina Public Press and four other local news outlets. The case is scheduled to be heard Sept. 4 in Buncombe County Superior Court.
Smith’s initiative came on the heels of a July 24 council meeting, when Blueline’s manager, Mike Wright, briefed City Council on the state of disarray in the “old” evidence room, which is presently under seal while a new room stores new evidence. At the same meeting, Police Chief William Anderson told the council that he needs to see the audit to adequately address the problems of the past and chart a course forward.
The next day, Smith e-mailed fellow council members, City Manager Gary Jackson and City Attorney Bob Oast a message, with the subject line “Audit Contract.”
“Upon reviewing the contract with Blueline, I came upon the clause in section A(15) that indicates a redacted copy of the audit is required to be released to the City in the event the contents are sensitive,” Smith wrote. “It seems we are contractually entitled to receive the redacted copy. Thoughts?”
Council member Cecil Bothwell, who has said he favors the release of the report but thinks it will provide no information of value, responded later that day.
“Having dealt with redacted documents over many years as a journalist, my take is that requesting them simply consumes time for some redactor,” he wrote.
“I honestly don’t believe we are in a position to make any useful judgments about 28,000 (or is it 38,000) items carefully listed with various magic marker lines over parts of the report (or however they might redact digitally),” he continued. “My take-away is that we have been shown a systematic problem, not in any way unique to Asheville.”
Bothwell added: “I think we need to do what we can to facilitate better accountability going forward, fund the (probably expensive) reconciliation of past records and stuff … and reassure our citizens that we are doing everything possible to fix the problems.”
The next day, July 26, Smith responded: “We signed a legal contract with the company that calls for the release of a redacted copy in the event that the entire audit could not be released. It’s my opinion that we ought to execute the contract as we agreed. Otherwise we are abandoning the level of transparency available to us per the terms.”
Smith went on to quote this passage from the contract, which can be viewed in its entirety here: “Contractor, in consultation with the District Attorney, shall redact or remove from the final report such confidential information and provide the City with a copy of the remaining information contained in the final report.”
“Per the terms of the contract everyone agreed to, the redacted version shall be made available,” Smith wrote. “That looks pretty straightforward to me.”
A day later, July 27, Smith asked City Attorney Bob Oast about the matter in a separate e-mail.
“You may have seen that I’m interested in pursuing a redacted version of the evidence room report audit report,” Smith wrote. “It stipulates in the contract that the city signed with Blueline that we ‘shall’ receive a redacted version if the entire report can’t be released for some reason. It seems to me that it’s our responsibility to fulfill the terms of the contract. Your thoughts?”
On July 28, Oast responded to Smith, writing, “I plan to speak with Ron Moore about that as we respond to the lawsuit.”
In April, Carolina Public Press polled City Council members on their thoughts regarding the audit’s release. At the time, Smith said that he’d like to see the document.
“It’s important that it eventually comes to light,” he said then, but he predicted that it would probably take a lawsuit to make the report public.
Smith decided to ask for the audit, he said in a recent interview, after seeing a link to the contract on Twitter, after the July 24 council meeting, and then reviewing the contract’s details.