The News Journal | by Christina Jedra
When Wilmington bus rider advocates wanted answers about why the Rodney Square bus hub was dismantled, they requested Gov. John Carney’s emails in hopes of seeing the circumstances of his decision.
Instead, they got black bars of redacted text.
Whether those emails will stay hidden is now up to Attorney General Matt Denn’s office.
The Coalition to Keep Bus Service on Rodney Square filed a complaint this week asking the Department of Justice to step in and order the emails be uncovered.
“Governor Carney’s action in blacking out over 100 pages of emails regarding bus stops at Rodney Square does not promote governmental transparency, does not inform the electorate and deprives the public the ability to observe and monitor the decisions made by the Governor … ” the coalition wrote in an email on Monday.
The letter was signed by over 55 advocates including state Rep. John Kowalko; New Castle County Recorder of Deeds Michael Kozikowski; Paula A Maiorano, chair of the Coalition to Dismantle the New Jim Crow DE; members of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, and others.
Over 1,700 people have signed petitions urging the restoration of bus stops around Rodney Square, according to the organization.
The group has been fighting bus route changes that took effect in December. Stops were removed from Rodney Square, a frequent transfer point. Now, riders — some of whom are elderly and/or disabled — must walk several city blocks to catch connections, and if they miss the bus, they have to wait for up to an hour at new stops that lack benches and shelters.
Advocates say the changes disparately impact low-income riders and minorities.
Governor’s office emails obtained by The News Journal in March showed that area business leaders, including Chemours lobbyist Greg Smith and BPG co-president Robert Buccini, appealed to Carney to remove the buses.
The coalition is seeking more of those types of emails.
The News Journal also received hundreds of pages of redacted emails.
State lawyers justified keeping the content of many emails private because of “executive privilege,” an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act. Experts say it is intended to shield politicians’ deliberative conversations with advisers from public view.
In theory, it can be a positive tool that allows executive officials to get unfiltered advice without suffering political consequences, according to Ryan Tack-Hooper, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware.
“What this is supposed to apply to is when advisors have given opinions on decisions the governor is going to make, not unsolicited letters from interested parties or embarrassing information they don’t want to release,” Tack-Hooper said.
“If you’ve redacted an entire document, you’ve almost certainly exceeded the scope.”
In the redacted emails the state sent the coalition, even the governor’s email was covered, possibly suggesting his use of an email address unknown to the general public.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the complaint this week other than to say “we received and are reviewing the appeal,” according to Communications Director Jonathan Starkey.
Last month, Starkey said Carney’s legal team wants to preserve the governor’s “ability to communicate with his senior staff and his ability to solicit information to help in his decision-making process.”
“We are as transparent as possible within the bounds of reasonableness,” Starkey said in a statement in June. “While the governor is a public figure, the General Assembly has seen fit to protect the governor’s right to deliberate and communicate with some small amount of privacy.”
John Flaherty, a coalition leader, said there is no reason for executive privilege to apply to discussions about bus stops.
“I can see it applying to sensitive issues of national defense,” he said. “But when the government is intimately involved in moving a bus stop, we have a right to know. … Even though they might be embarrassing to the governor, there’s nothing in the law that would exempt them from public disclosure.”