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June 5, 2018 10:28 am

Taking Public E-Mails Private: How Durham City Council Promotes Anti-Israel Discrimination by Avoiding Transparency

avatar by Peter Reitzes

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The Durham City Council meeting on April 16, 2018. Photo: Screenshot.

In May, the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill and the Voice for Israel advocacy group denounced the City Council of Durham, North Carolina for “imposing a total ban on police exchanges with only one country in the world: the Jewish nation of Israel.”

“There was no evidence to support the City Council’s actions, only propaganda lies promoted by a group that has a well-documented animus toward the Jewish state,” they wrote in a joint complaint filed with the Durham Human Relations Commission.

On April 16, the day the ban was unanimously approved, Rabbi Zalman Bluming was one of many speakers who pleaded with the City Council not to discriminate against Israel and Jews. “My phone has been ringing non-stop over the last week, [from] young adults that live here that feel unsafe, that feel marginalized, that feel as if for some reason they’ve been singled out,” he explained.

I have since filed more than two dozen public record requests with Durham, trying to understand exactly what happened. While many requests are still pending, here are a few salient findings.

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An information packet given to Durham City Council members by the deceptively titled group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) was obtained by a public records request. It reveals that elected officials were encouraged to “boycott and divest from the brutality of policing by both the US and Israeli governments.” In the online version of the petition, activists falsely claimed that Israel trains police to “terrorize Black and Brown communities here in the US,” but notably didn’t explicitly frame their call as a “boycott.”

I also found that the City Council appears to have flouted its own rules in order to quickly consider the proposal. Eighteen petitioners (including several donors to Durham City Council members) sent an email to Mayor Steve Schewel and the City Council on April 3, stating, “Students from three universities are key participants in this effort and will be leaving campus in early May…it is crucial that this resolution be introduced this month…[and] put on the April 5th work session agenda.” Schewel complied with requests to speak, even though the council’s own rules mandate that speakers must sign up “ten calendar days prior to the City Council Work Session.” By breaking the rules and proceeding with unusual haste, the City Council prevented those who support equality for all people and faiths from fully participating.

On April 5, about 12 hours before the work session was to begin, Schewel sent City Manager Thomas Bonfield and all members of the City Council the “Statement on policing from the Durham City Council” that discriminates against Jews and Israel. As the complaint with the Human Relations Commission explains, “the City Council’s statement quoted from a memorandum from the Durham Police Chief in which she stated that ‘there has been no effort while I have served as Chief of Police to initiate or participate in any exchange to Israel, nor do I have any intention to do so.’ Not included was the Police Chief’s statements in the very same memorandum which reflected her own positive training experience in Israel.”

Schewel sent the council statement from his personal email account to the personal email accounts of Bonfield and all city council members, thus keeping the statement out of the eyes of the media, which regularly monitor city council emails.

Thus, Mayor Schewel wrote policy that demonizes Israel without allowing even a single minute of public discussion. This is in direct opposition to the Council’s Code of Ethics, which instructs council members to grant “every citizen a fair and impartial hearing on any matter which may be heard before the public official.”

The Durham City Council’s demonization of Israel is not surprising. In 2015, just a month after being elected, council member Jillian Johnson requested information from Durham’s Finance Department regarding Durham’s “Investment Portfolio” and then forwarded the information with a note that said, “Thought I’d send this to y’all in case it has any use for future BDS purposes.” BDS is an acronym for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel. A JVP member responded, “Wow, thanks Jilly. This is like a foreign language to me, but awesome looking out!”

On May 15, in response to my public records request for public business emails that reside in council member DeDreana Freeman’s personal account, an executive assistant in the Office of the Mayor and Council wrote to the City Clerk, “please note Council Freeman wants all of the emails blackened out.” Freeman then contacted City Attorney Patrick Baker and asked, “Please let me know if it’s a problem to black out folks email addresses from my personal emails.” Baker responded, “I need to clarify what you mean by personal emails. For our purposes, a public record is any record created in connection with the transaction of City business…Whether the email is sent to your personal or public email account has no impact on determining whether it is a public record.”

In the public records request results sent to me from Freeman’s personal account, Lao Rubert, Mayor Schewel’s wife, offered feedback and advice to Sondra Stein of the People’s Alliance, regarding an April 16 letter written to Schewel and the City Council. The People’s Alliance is considered a very powerful political organization in Durham. The letter indicates that the People’s Alliance is now asking Schewel and the City Council to turn their anti-Israel statement into a resolution. Freeman’s instinct to blacken out any part of this public record is concerning.

Why is the Durham City Council fast tracking anti-Israel policy behind the veil of personal email accounts? I call upon Durham to collect all emails and electronic communications related to public business that reside in personal accounts and place them in an easily accessible, public database. It is time for the city of Durham to act with transparency and integrity.

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