Mecklenburg Co. Commissioners Chairman blasts fellow commissioner, media after being questioned on open meetings violation

Mecklenburg County budget passes amid transparency concerns

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The chairman of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners opened Tuesday’s night’s meeting with a monologue that attacked a fellow commissioner and local media after questions surfaced about whether the commissioners violated state open meetings laws in discussing changes to the county’s budget by email instead of at a public meeting.

Commissioner George Dunlap, the board’s chairman, opened the meeting by saying he wanted to address the budget process. But seconds into his speech, he turned his focus to fellow Commissioner Pat Cotham, who first alerted reporters last week to budget discussions that were taking place by email. The board voted 8-1 to approve the FY 2020 budget with Cotham the sole dissenting vote. Commissioners praised the budget for adding an additional $50 million for CMS, $21 million for Meck Pre-K and $16 million for Parks and Rec.

An email provided by Cotham included a pre-written motion that had been prepared by County Manager Dena Diorio and sent to Dunlap that incorporated a number of amendments to the budget county staff had prepared.

That email was forwarded by Dunlap to all commissioners ahead of the meeting.

“Below is the proposed motion that will accomplish the changes that you have request. Having listened to each of you, the motion should pass unanimously. If I have missed something, please let me know,” Dunlap’s email said.

“When this motion passes, we can adjourn the meeting. At the official budget adoption meeting, each board member traditionally speaks to the public to share your thoughts about the budget,” Dunlap’s email continued.

In an interview with WBTV last week, Dunlap refused to identify which commissioners asked for what budget amendments and told a reporter he would have to ask each commissioner individually what amendments they asked for.

“If you seriously want to know I’m telling you now go ask them,” Dunlap said.

When asked what budget adjustments he requested Dunlap also declined to answer.

“Not important. What’s important is that eight of us decided that everything that was proposed was important to this community and we agreed to support it,” Dunlap said.

Following last week’s meeting, WBTV requested the emails--including messages sent by some board members using private email accounts--and text messages of every board member discussing the proposed budget.

County staff has yet to produce all responsive records but emails the station have obtained show commissioners Susan Harden and Elaine Powell both made specific requests for changes to the budget to the full board via email, which one open government expert said was likely a violation of the state’s open meetings law.

“There’s clear deliberation going on,” attorney Jonathan Jones, who spent years leading the North Carolina Sunshine Center and now has a private practice, that includes open government work, said.

“There’s back and forth about an amendment, about how much money should be spent on this project or that project,” Jones said.

Related: New emails show more private budget wrangling by county commissioners

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.

Commissioners have pointed to advice from the Mecklenburg County Attorney, who has said ironing out the budget over email is not a violation of the open meetings law.

Additional, follow-up requests to a county spokesman for a more detailed explanation behind that opinion from the county attorney have gone unanswered.

But Dunlap opened Tuesday’s meeting by taking aim at Cotham and the media.

“There has been an allegation from one of my colleagues that in order to get through the budget process that there was some ‘backroom dealings’ going on, that there were some illegal meetings going on and that there were some violations of the open meetings law. My colleague Pat Cotham shared that information with the media,” Dunlap said.

“And without a response from any other member of the board, the media ran the story without talking to any one of us,” Dunlap said, without acknowledging he gave an interview to WBTV after last week’s meeting, the day the story first broke.

Dunlap’s criticism follows a statement given to WBTV last week by Commissioner Elaine Powell last week that criticized questions surrounding the board’s potential violations of the law in reaching a consensus on the budget.

“I’m shocked and saddened that the focus is on emails that our county attorney considers legal,” Powell said in her statement.

Also last week, Commissioner Susan Harden defended her use of email to propose changes to the budget.

“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 Dunlap why he claimed that “the media” hadn’t reached out to him before reporting on the story.

“I said all I’m going to say all I’m going to say about that,” Chair George Dunlap said.

“Unfortunately you made a couple false statements,” Investigative Reporter David Hodges said.

“I’m telling you, you reached out to me after the fact.”

“That’s not true we did an interview with you and then aired a story” Hodges said.

Dunlap clarified that he meant that news outlets reached out to him after a story was published by WBTV news partner The Charlotte Observer, which is how the reporting process works.

WBTV also questioned Dunlap after he said that he personally had taken all of the commissioners budget requests and amendments to the county manager. Emails obtained by WBTV show that Commissioners Elaine Powell and Susan Harden both sent emails to all county commissioners and the county manager.

“What she suggested was the two items she wanted to add,” Dunlap said.

“That was not conversation back and forth between commissioners.”

“It was actually an email and a motion and an email to all other commissioners.” Investigative Reporter David Hodges said.

“Did anybody act on that?” Dunlap said.

In fact, Dunlap and County Manager Dena Diorio included the request in their budget motion that was passed by county commissioners at the straw vote a week ago.

The $1.9-billion budget passed Tuesday night is an increase of $158 million, or 9.1 percent.

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