Charlotte City Council spent $42,000 on retreat, likely violated law

Charlotte City Council spent $42,000 on retreat, likely violated law

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The Charlotte City Council spent $41,921.35 on its annual retreat this year. The retreat, which was held in Raleigh in January, is the second most expensive council retreat in the past ten years.

Documents provided by the City of Charlotte in response to a records request from WBTV Investigates show the bulk of the expense went to lodging and facility charges.

Councilmembers and city staff stayed at the Hilton North Raleigh at a cost of $145 per night plus tax, records show. The retreat sessions were held in a ballroom at the hotel.

A summary chart provided by the city shows taxpayers spent a total of $30,484.85 charges incurred at the hotel, including rooms, banquet facility and audio/video charges.

A breakdown of the hotel charges written on one page of the Hilton invoice shows taxpayers spent $8,436.10 on hotel rooms, $13,408.42 on the banquet room and meals served in the room and $8,103.98 on A/V. Taxpayers also paid the hotel $536.35 in cancellation, early departure and no-show fees.

Taxpayers treat council, staff, lawmakers to steak dinner

Taxpayers paid thousands of dollars to treat the City Council, city staff, lawmakers and other guests to a steak dinner during one night of the retreat.

Records provided by the city show 43 people attended the meal. The dinner bill came to $2,526.90, according to records provided by the city.

Pictures of the dinner posted on social media by the city showed a bipartisan group of councilmembers, lawmakers, city staff and journalists in the private dining room at Sullivans Steakhouse.

Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield, a Democrat, posted a picture from the dinner at Sullivans posing with Republican state lawmakers Sen. Dan Bishop and Rep. Bill Brawley, both from Mecklenburg County.

Other pictures posted from the evening showed City Manager Marcus Jones sitting at a table that included Rep. Carla Cunningham (D-Mecklenburg), Mayor Jennifer Roberts, Sen. Jeff Tarte (R-Mecklenburg) and Rep. Becky Carney (D-Mecklenburg).

State Senator Joel Ford (D-Mecklenburg) was seen at Sullivans the night of the dinner paying for his own meal. A city spokewoman said two reporters who were invited to join the dinner also paid for their own meals.

Governor Roy Cooper addressed the dinners attendees, according to a picture posted on social media. Attendees of the council retreat left the hotel for dinner the next night, too.

Records provided by the city show 30 people ate at Mia Francesca Trattoria for a total cost of $1,494.68.

Dinners likely violated open meetings law

The taxpayer-funded dinner likely violated the state's open meeting law, according to one open government expert.

Under the law, a government body—in this case, the Charlotte City Council—must advertise its meetings and make them accessible to the public when a quorum of the body is gathering to discuss public business.

In this case, the council retreat was advertised as being held at the Hilton North Raleigh. The city did not advertise the location of their off-site dinner meetings.

Jonathan Jones, an attorney who works as Executive Director of the North Carolina Sunshine Center, said the council would have had to advertise the locations of its dinners and make them accessible to the public if council members discussed any city-related topics or business during the meal.

"The only way that dinner would be legal is if they didn't discuss any council business over dinner," Jones said. "It just doesn't stand to reason that you would have dinner with legislators and the governor and not talk about council business."

A city spokeswoman provided WBTV with copies of calendars and meeting notifications she claimed advertised the council retreat but the notices did not appear to contain any information about the location of the dinners.

"Unless they were extremely careful about what they discussed during dinner, they likely violated the open meetings law," Jones said. "The law does have room for people to get together but it's bad practice."

2017 retreat more expensive than previous years

This year's retreat was more expensive than nearly every other council retreat in previous years.

The only year in which the council spent more on its retreat since 2008 was in 2012 when the council held its retreat in Pinehurst. That year's retreat cost $48,722.08.

Last year's retreat in Winston-Salem totaled $29,404.87. Information provided by the city shows council members ate out one night in Winston-Salem but the cost of that dinner was not provided.

Councilmembers stayed in Charlotte for their 2015 retreat, held at the Duke Endowment Building, according to information provided by the city. According to information given to WBTV, council members had lunch at Dressler's restaurant one day during the 2015 retreat for a cost of $661.00.  The total cost of 2015's in-town retreat was only $6,239.38, significantly less expensive than even previous retreats held in Charlotte.

City responds

A spokeswoman for the City of Charlotte provided the following statement in response to a request for comment for this story:

"Charlotte City Council members found great value in holding their annual retreat in Raleigh.  Traveling to the state capital provided city leaders and elected officials the opportunity to strengthen relationships as well as to share information and discuss Charlotte's future."

A spokesman for Mayor Jennifer Roberts said Roberts was out of town and not immediately available to answer questions on whether she thought the expense of this year's retreat was worth it or if she would push to hold retreats closer to home in future years.

Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles, Councilman Kenny Smith and Senator Joel Ford—all of whom have announced their candidacy for may in the 2017 municipal election—did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment about whether they thought this year's council retreat was appropriate.

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