CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - New emails obtained by WBTV reveal that Mecklenburg County commissioners had much more extensive discussion about proposed changes to this year’s budget than had previously been known.
Questions for the commissioners began earlier this week after Commissioner Pat Cotham revealed an email sent from Chairman George Dunlap to the commissioners outlining the agreed-upon amendments that would be made to the budget.
On Tuesday, Dunlap told WBTV that email was based upon information he’d gathered from meeting with commissioners either individually or in small groups and said the email did not violate the law.
In the wake of Tuesday’s revelations, WBTV requested additional emails from Dunlap and other commissioners.
Among the documents WBTV has received in response to our follow-up request are emails from Vice Chairwoman Elaine Powell and Commissioner Susan Harden, both of which proposed specific changes to the budget and were sent to the entire commission and county staff.
A public records expert said county commissioners conducting budget discussion via email instead of in a public meeting violates the state’s open meetings law.
Open records attorney Jonathan Jones says he believes the email is a violation of North Carolina’s open meeting laws.
“There’s clear deliberation going on,” Jones said.
“There’s back and forth about an amendment, about how much money should be spent on this project or that project.”
Jones believes the email from one commissioner to the rest of the commission would constitute a public meeting, especially if other commissioners respond and dialogue along a policy or agenda item is discussed.
“This looks a lot like the kind of deliberation that is supposed to occur in a public setting,” Jones said.
North Carolina law requires elected bodies to give notice to the public before holding a public meeting. If the email conversations are considered a public meeting of the Board of County Commissioners, that did not happen.
Powell’s email went to the entire board and addressed cuts the county manager was proposing in order to make room for their budget adjustments.
On Thursday, Powell declined to address her possible violation of state law on-camera, citing a busy schedule but did send an email criticizing those who have questioned the commissioners’ decision to conduct business in private instead of in front of taxpayers, as required by law.
“I’m shocked and saddened that the focus is on emails that our county attorney considers legal,” Powell said.
WBTV also obtained a copy of an email in which Commissioner Susan Harden requested a budget amendment by emailing every county commissioner, the county manager and other county staff.
Harden, who did agree to speak with WBTV on-camera, said the email process was not an attempt to hide the budget process from the public.
“The email was intended for informational purposes only, not for deliberation,” Harden told WBTV. “We email each other, provide information for each other about all sorts of things that we may deliberate about in an open meeting.”
WBTV asked Harden if any county commissioners or county staff, other than Commissioner Pat Cotham, ever raised any concerns about transparency and open meetings law.
“No. We have a tremendous county attorney here who's worked for the county for thirty years and at no time has he ever raised a concern about our email deliberations,” Harden said.
“If it’s something that you’re passionate enough to ask for an adjustment in the budget, why not make the case for it in front of the public?” a WBTV reporter asked.
“Well I feel I have made that case. I made that case when I was running for election, I made that case when I was in my district and in my meetings and I’m certainly going to make that case when we vote on the budget on Tuesday,” Harden said.
“But why not in the budget adjustment meeting?” the reporter asked.
“I just was ready to vote at that time. I didn’t have anything more to say at that moment.”
County Attorney Tyrone Wade told commissioners Tuesday that he did not believe their email conversations were a violation of open records law. WBTV reached out to both Wade and a county spokesperson to understand his legal justification but no specifics were given.
Ramifications for violating North Carolina’s records and meetings laws are rare. It would require a lawsuit filed against the elected body and a judgement determining the violation voided the vote and process upon which they were deliberating, in this case the budget. Jones says he’s not aware of any case in North Carolina over the past six years where that’s happened.