Bureaucrats vs Politicians: Who’s making the decisions on COVID-19?

Policy group, not elected officials, calls the shots on COVID-19

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Cornelius Town Manager Andrew Grant remembers some of the difficult conversations that his town and Mecklenburg County were faced with in the early stages of the pandemic.

After its first joint proclamation, auto sales were not allowed in Mecklenburg County due to restrictions on businesses.

Grant says he was hearing from dealership owners in his town who wanted a better understanding of why they weren’t allowed to open their sale floors.

“We brought that back to the group, we had a discussion about that,” Grant says.

“Over the course of several conversations we resolved that as a group and dealerships were allowed to open under some guidelines.”

The group Grant is talking about is a policy group formed after the joint declaration of emergency on March 13th for the COVID-19 pandemic. It includes a collection of top government administrators and health experts in Mecklenburg County.

During the pandemic this policy group, not elected officials, has been making the biggest, most impactful decisions regarding health recommendations and business restrictions in Mecklenburg County.

Some locally elected officials have questioned whether the emergency management structure that allows for this form of governance is well suited for a prolonged pandemic.

In instances when the county has had greater restrictions than other counties in North Carolina, such as when vehicle sales and realtor showings were banned, this policy group was making those choices.

“We worked very collectively on our stay-at-home orders that we enacted locally,” Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio told WBTV.

“This group works on consensus and we don’t move forward unless we have consensus from all the parties.”

While Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris acts as the incident commander of the policy group, members of the group told WBTV that Diorio is the one running the meetings and helped organize the group even before the first COVID-19 case in the county.

When the pandemic first started, the group was hopping on conference calls seven days a week but now is checking in with each other twice a week.

“We just sort of go round-robin and everybody just reports out what they’re seeing on the ground, what the issues are,” Diorio said.

During an interview with WBTV, members of the group made it clear that this policy group isn’t just effective in making decisions but also is unique compared to most other counties across the state and country.

What makes this situation different is the never-ending nature of the emergency. In most circumstances the Emergency Operations Center is up and running only for a matter of days or weeks due to a tornado or hurricane. According to Deputy Emergency Management Director Wike Graham, the longest lasting local emergency prior to the pandemic was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The details of how the policy group works are part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Operations Plan, which is only available for in-person viewing at the Emergency Operations for security reasons.

A document attached to that plan explains the policy group which “typically consists of agency administrators, executives” and is “established and organized to make cooperative multiagency decisions.”

In practice, the policy group is calling the shots and only needs the top elected official for each city, town and the county to sign off to make it official.

Members of the policy group say the biggest asset of their collaboration is having a variety of experts helping make the decisions without having to have it publicly debated in every elected board in the county.

“This allows us to make more informed decisions because we have the hospitals at the table and public health at the table and CMPD and the towns,” Diorio said.

But not everybody is at the table.

During a Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners meeting on August 5th Commissioner Trevor Fuller expressed frustration that a joint proclamation limiting the sale of alcohol after 11 p.m. was decided without input from commissioners.

“We have to be accountable to the people and folks who are not elected don’t have to answer,” Fuller told WBTV.

“This is not about an ego-based thing. To me it’s about as a citizen, what voice do I have in decisions that are being made about my life.”

WBTV asked Diorio, Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones and Cornelius Town Manager Andrew Grant about whether the emergency structure should be changed so elected officials were included in the decision making process.

“I really feel like this is the right structure for this incident and any other that would come up and the reason for that is because it would be really hard to manage if you had a county commission, a city council and six town boards all trying to debate how these things should go forward,” Diorio said.

Jones and Grant said they often communicate with their mayors and other elected officials to make sure they’re on the same page.

“We start the conversation, or at least I do with the elected officials, that this may be coming, and I try to get insight,” Jones said.

“There’s certainly a lot of feedback that I attain from my mayor and my elected officials,” Grant said.

That’s not to say that every decision is smooth sailing for the policy group. Sometimes a consensus is only reached by not having everyone on the same page.

In April, the policy group aligned with the restrictions in place at the state level. During the announcement Diorio said that there wasn’t enough support from local mayors to extend the local stay-at-home order the county already had in place.

That meant less restrictions on car dealerships, realtors, vape shops and dog groomers.

Similarly, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools also has a seat in the policy group and is receiving pressure from many parents to allow for more in-person instruction. Health Director Gibbie Harris says that doesn’t take away from making the best health policy decisions for the county.

“The other issues whether it’s the economy, the politics or whatever it happens to be that is affecting the issue at the moment, CMS and the challenges they’re having, all of those sorts of things come into the conversation and that’s why it’s so helpful to have all these folks at the table,” Harris said.

Also with a seat at the table are Novant and Atrium. When COVID-19 first struck and there were discussions about creating field hospitals, data from both of those organizations made it clear that wasn’t necessary at the time.

“Being able to bring our perspective, our expertise, bring the accurate data so that everyone in this group has the best data available to make decisions, that’s the most important thing,” Atrium Senior VP and Chief Medical Officer Jim Hunter said.

“We really have our finger on the pulse of what are we actually seeing in our acute care facilities and in our inventory settings,” Novant Senior VP and Chief Clinical Officer Sid Fletcher said.

Fuller says he doesn’t want to silence those voices and that public health experts should be making the recommendations about how to move forward.

“It should be supported by, informed by the experts,” Fuller said.

“I’m not suggesting elected officials should go off on some tangent, not at all. I’m saying it’s got to be in collaboration with and the final say is made by elected officials.”

Unlike a county commission meeting though there isn’t full transparency in the policy group. WBTV asked to attend one of the policy group meetings but wasn’t extended an invitation. We also requested copies of agendas and minutes from the meetings but were told they don’t exist.

Diorio and Graham believe that the structure in place doesn’t need an overhaul to allow for open meetings.

“I think that we do a really good job of communicating what’s going on. We brief our board every week and we’re briefing our board on basically what we’re talking about in these meetings,” Diorio said.

“If you were to open it up to a lot of different people it would definitely suppress our ability to have open, honest communication as we go through this,” Graham said.

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