CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A WBTV investigation has uncovered new evidence Mecklenburg County Commissioners were warned about conducting public business over email and that it might violate North Carolina’s open meeting laws.
In May, WBTV exposed emails between commissioners that showed commissioners were making proposals for budget adjustments behind the scenes instead of during an open, public meeting.
Board Chair George Dunlap sent an email to commissioners outlining the budget adjustments.
Commissioner Elaine Powell responded with questions about the adjustments and Commissioner Susan Harden had previously proposed her own amendments in emails to the rest of the group.
Attorney Jonathan Jones told WBTV this was likely a violation of North Carolina open meetings laws.
“This looks a lot like the kind of deliberation that is supposed to occur in a public setting,” Jones said.
In June, WBTV asked Commissioner Susan Harden why she replied to all her colleagues in the email.
“Did anyone else ever bring up any concerns about transparency in sharing information in that way?” a WBTV reporter asked Commissioner Susan Harden.
“No,” responded Harden. “We have a tremendous county attorney here who's worked for the county for 30 years and at no time has he ever raised a concern about our email deliberations.”
According to public records obtained by WBTV in December, four new county commissioners attended the UNC School of Government “Essentials of County Government Class.”
A PowerPoint presentation given at the class titled “Transparency” had a slide specifically about emailing other county commissioners.
The slide says a “Majority of a public body interacting in an electronic conversation that is essentially simultaneous may constitute a meeting.”
And underneath has a meme that says “every time you reply all a kitten dies.”
WBTV asked Harden about the discrepancy.
Harden said the county attorney never recommended not emailing all other commissioners at once. In fact, she said county staff have recommended making sure all commissioners were included in emails.
She also noted that her email about the budget was not a reply to Dunlap’s email. Records obtained by WBTV show Harden’s email was a ‘reply all’ to an email from Budget Director Michael Bryant.
WBTV also asked Board Chair George Dunlap if he ever attended the UNC School of Government class.
He texted back “ask them, they keep records.”
WBTV is waiting for that records response from the School of Government.