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New City Attorney Begins Job As Charlotte Faces Hard Issues Like Immigration, Remnants Of HB2

New City Attorney Patrick Baker started work 10 days ago.

Charlotte’s new city attorney is on the job. Patrick Baker started work 10 days ago, replacing longtime City Attorney Bob Hagemann, who retired at the end of last year. Baker comes to Charlotte from Durham, where he served as city attorney for ten years, and city manager before that.  

His latest move puts Baker in a key position for advising Charlotte officials as the city deals with a range of challenging policy issues, like immigration and non-discrimination protections for transgender people.

Mark Rumsey talked with Patrick Baker this week in the city attorney’s office on the 15th floor of the government center in uptown Charlotte.

Mark Rumsey: Well, what attracted you to the city attorney job here in Charlotte?

Patrick Baker: For the most part, city attorneys stay in the state that they're in. And I was very happy in Durham. The timing actually was perfect — as empty nesters — for my wife and I to consider this opportunity. And really Charlotte, among the jurisdictions in the state of North Carolina, was really the only place that I would consider leaving Durham for. The opportunities that are here — there are some similarities in terms of some of the things that we are working on in Charlotte like affordable housing, some of the issues as it relates to trying to expand the economic opportunities in the community, a number of issues of policing as well. Those issues are very similar, but just at a much bigger stage.

[Related Content: Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann Announces Retirement]

Rumsey: Well Mr. Baker, let's talk about some of the key issues that Charlotte is facing now and can expect to be facing in the future — and I'd like to start with immigration. Where does Charlotte stand now in terms of its policy toward immigration — and particularly immigrants who are [in the country illegally] or are undocumented — and whether or not to be in a cooperative posture with the federal government on that issue?

Baker: I am not as familiar with exactly what's going on in Charlotte but having watched it from Durham, I know that there was a similar thought in terms of being a welcoming community. I never really understood what a sanctuary city was because I could never get a clear definition as to what it was. But I know that Durham was on that list of, you know, we're a sanctuary city. And I constantly defended that Durham was not a sanctuary city — that if there were crimes that were committed by anyone in Durham, that they would be addressed and that this wasn't going to be a safe place for crime for anyone.

But we certainly wanted to reach out to the immigrant community to make them feel safe and welcoming, particularly from the police perspective. [We wanted to make] sure that they can feel comfortable reporting crimes, and you know if they're a crime victim, without the fear of their interaction with the police department now being the opportunity to remove them from the country.

Rumsey: But what about the broader issue of whether or not a municipal government should be offering any sort of sanctuary, if you will, or should be cooperating more assertively with the federal government — with Immigration and Customs Enforcement — in identifying, tagging or even apprehending individuals who are simply in the country illegally, not necessarily having committed a crime?

Baker: So my experience from Durham is that we've just focused on being a welcoming community — that we weren't going to go hunting to enforce immigration laws. That was not the job of the Durham Police Department — that was something that the city council in Durham really stressed.

I get the sense again that Charlotte is in a similar posture and I would certainly, you know, take my lead from my new bosses here in Charlotte in terms of where it is that they want to go while at the same time staying abreast of changes to state law to make sure that I'm providing counsel with the most up-to-date legal advice in terms of what the General Assembly will and will not allow us to do.

Rumsey: Entirely so? I mean along with the legal counsel that you will be providing, do you anticipate having a voice in what you think the policy on this issue — specifically immigration — should be?

Baker: So from my perspective as the lawyer, I think you get into trouble when the lawyer then becomes the policy maker. I would expect that the city manager — and this kind of gets into my dual roles in the past as being both manager and attorney. I certainly have no positions on it.

If [the City Council] is in a quandary on any particular matter — whether it's in immigration or affordable housing or what have you — if I can suggest a potential policy directive that will get them to the goals that I'm hearing, I'll certainly provide that to them. But I think that it's important for the attorney not to then become the 13th council member trying to influence policy in that way.

Rumsey: Let's talk about law enforcement and policing in 2016. Charlotte city and police officials struggled over the timing of the public release of police body cam footage in the fatal police shooting of Keith Scott. And I believe Durham officials dealt with a similar situation last year under a law signed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016. News organizations or others seeking release of police body cam video must petition for it in court. Do you believe that that should be the case?

Baker: You know we struggled with that one because in Durham at least when we had those body cam videos, we tended to release those videos in real time so that we didn't have that lag where there was a perception or somebody was saying that something happened out on the street when it didn't actually happen (which was usually the case that we're dealing with in Durham).

My preference, of course, would be that communities be allowed to handle it as they see fit. I'm not sure I ever really understood the need for the General Assembly to make a one size fits all. Certainly in Durham, we're always trying to be transparent whether we we didn't do it and we want to show the community that everything that we did was clean or if we made a mistake. Transparency was always the key in Durham and I would imagine it is in Charlotte as well. With as big a city as [Charlotte] is, there's a number of things that are going on. The last thing you want to do is to sort of go into a shell every time there's a big issue. My preference would be that the cities be allowed to make that release without the necessity of going to court and getting a court order for that.

Rumsey: During this conversation, Baker and I also talked about the controversy surrounding North Carolina’s now-repealed House Bill Two.

In 2017, state legislators passed a replacement bill that put a moratorium on local ordinances like the 2016 Charlotte measure extending non-discrimination protections for transgender people. But the moratorium expires next year.

Baker discussed whether Charlotte should be able to legally pass a similar non-discrimination policy.

Baker: So much of that depends on what the rules of the game are, getting back to what the legislature allows us to do. I certainly understood how things went down and 2016 and 2017, but the legislature changed the rules of the game. I suspect that there's going to be some more changes to that as well.

And as the lawyer for the city, I mean my job is to make recommendations based on what the law is. That's where it gets a little tricky to answer the question because the law keeps changing and that. You know with each session, the General Assembly could put out new rules that I need to interpret and then advise.

Rumsey: Do you think Charlotte from a legal standpoint should have a stronger nondiscrimination policy of some sort in place — specifically protecting what the original ordinance described as the rights of LGBT residents in this city?

Baker: So speaking as the city attorney again, I would look to my boss as the Charlotte City Council for that policy directive. I think that's something purely within their scope in terms of how they want to handle those types of situations as it relates to a non-discrimination ordinance.

Rumsey: Is it though? Because couldn't one make the argument that not having those protections in place would be opening the city to legal action in and of itself, which would become very much in the realm that you're here to look after?

Baker: Well certainly in those areas like Title 7 for instance, where we know exactly where the law stands. I would certainly make those opinions known to the council. Some of the things that have been going on in terms of the LGBTQ community is not grounded in Title 7, but it is policy that I personally think is certainly a way that the community should go. I think that there should be non-discrimination for all the residents in the community and that should be the statement of of a particular community.

Rumsey: I'd like to ask you Mr. Baker about issues of free speech in Charlotte and specifically for years now, there've been tensions between protesters and clients or patients and the operators of a clinic in east Charlotte — a women's clinic where abortions are performed. A couple of years ago, the city said it would allow the protesters to continue parking on the street near the facility, which is called A Preferred Women's Health Clinic. Clinic operators and some women's advocates have asked the city to crack down harder on things like boundaries and permits for the protesters. How would you be advising this city to go forward on this particular issue?

Baker: A good question. On that one, I'll need a better understanding of the history of what's been going on. I'm aware that this is a politically hot issue with some very strong opinions on both sides. I definitely would like to talk to the police attorney's staff in terms of what we have been doing and the basis for what we're doing and what we're considering doing going forward. And once I have a clearer understanding of that and an understanding applying that to the existing First Amendment the law out there, I'll certainly be advising the city council on that.

Rumsey: Can you say in general where you would draw the line between free speech rights around a women's clinic and the rights of the clinic and its patients to come and go without harassment?

Baker: Yeah I would hope that there is a way that both sides can exercise their rights and be respectful of the rights of the others. I know in this particular situation, it's been my understanding at least that you've had some individuals — particularly those protesting outside of the clinic — that have gone over the line a little bit. But I don't know exactly what that is.

I would assume that if a middle ground where everyone can exercise their rights could have been reached, it would have been by now. So I would imagine that at some point in time and on occasion, you have to call balls and strikes. You would rather everyone just kind of work it out amongst themselves and be respectful. But on occasion, you have to make a call and I suspect that we'll be needing to make some difficult calls here shortly.