As the city of Asheville prepared to counter a public-records lawsuit filed by local media outlets, City Council discussed the matter in three closed sessions. The official minutes of those sessions were recently released to Carolina Public Press.
The minutes mostly summarize briefings by City Attorney Bob Oast, who reiterated to council that an audit of the Asheville Police Department evidence room — commissioned by council in April of 2011 and completed in January of 2012 — remained in the hands of Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore, whose office was also targeted by the legal action.
The audit has played a large role in the controversy surrounding the APD evidence room, where, it was discovered in early 2011, substantial amounts of drugs, weapons, money and other valuables had gone missing.
The audit — an inventory of the evidence room’s holdings by private contractor Blueline Systems & Services — was delivered to Moore only. He has rebuffed requests to release the report, saying it is part of a criminal investigation and therefore exempt from disclosure.
Meanwhile, neither Asheville administrative officials nor City Council members have pressed to see the audit, though council member Gordon Smith has asserted that it should be made public. The audit cost $175,000 in public funds drawn from state and federal drug-seizure programs.
In an attempt to obtain the audit’s release, Carolina Public Press and four other local media outlets sued Moore’s office and the city of Asheville in June, asserting that the report is a public record. After a September hearing in Buncombe County Superior Court, a judge dismissed the complaints in the lawsuit.
In the months leading up to the hearing, Council was permitted, under state law, to enter into closed sessions to discuss the lawsuit.
But N.C.’s open-meetings law stipulates that, in such situations, a record reflecting the essence of the closed discussions must be kept, and that once the legal matters are resolved, those minutes must become a public record.
City deferred to county DA throughout the legal challenge
The first closed session documented in the minutes took place on June 26, the day after the lawsuit was filed.
The minutes of the session paraphrased Oast’s briefing. Regarding the audit, he said that “the District Attorney has control over it,” according to the minutes. “How much of the audit report gets released is up to DA Moore,” Oast said, adding that he “will be talking with DA Ron Moore to coordinate a defense.”
Mayor Terry Bellamy suggested, and the rest of council agreed, that the city should request suggestions contained in the audit from Moore, “including a summary of the changes the auditor recommended the (APD) put in place.”
Oast, the minutes said, “would advise District Attorney Moore of Council’s desire because we have worked hard to have a good relationship with that Office.”
At the second closed session, on Aug. 14, Oast advised Council that Moore “has not completed his review of the Blueline report, and considers the entire report to be a criminal investigative file at this point,” the minutes said.
Oast “said that criminal charges may come out of this, and that the report could be an investigative record in that respect. The contract with Blueline says they have to provide us with a copy of the final report; however, he’s not sure it’s final yet.”
Two weeks later, at the third closed session, Oast reported that Moore still considered the entirety of the report to be a closed record.
Oast discussed some of Moore’s planned legal defense, and again asserted: “The City does not have the report, and does not have access to it.”
Click here to read the recently released minutes of the three closed sessions. [PDF]
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Mayor Terry Bellamy’s name. It has been corrected.