Miscommunication and lack of plan marred Tent City abatement order

Miscommunication marred Charlotte's 'Tent City'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The days leading up to the sudden clearing of Tent City, a homeless camp that sprung up north of uptown Charlotte, was marred with miscommunication between city and county leaders, a WBTV investigation has found.

This story is based on interviews with a half dozen elected city and county leaders, all of whom asked to speak on background to discuss sensitive discussions and negotiations.

The officials said they were “disgusted” about the absence of communication from Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio leading up to the order and said how it continued to unfold was “terrible.”

The problems being highlighted by city and county representatives raise new questions about why the abatement order—which ordered people removed from the encampment by 5 p.m. Friday, three days from when it was issued—was not disclosed to other government agencies until shortly before it was made public.

The interviews also piece together a timeline of efforts to fix the communication problem that ultimately fell flat, despite efforts made by city and county elected leaders.

Before the order, meetings

Elected leaders on both the city council and county commission were helping organize meetings between leaders at the city and county for two months leading up to the abetment order, the sources said.

Those efforts culminated in a final meeting that took place Wednesday, February 10 with all of the major stakeholders from the county and city, including Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio, Deputy County Manager Anthony Trotman, City Manager Marcus Jones and a handful of city councilmembers and county commissioners.

The date of the meeting is important because the abatement order issued by Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris makes clear the week of February 8, environmental health specialists at Tent City “observed evidence of rodent infestation.”

According to the sources familiar with the discussion during the Feb. 10 meeting, the visits made by environmental health specialists were mentioned during the meeting but there was no discussion about the possibility of an abatement order, let alone indication that one would be coming in less than a week. Harris was not a part of that meeting.

The meeting was an attempt to find collaboration and to get everyone at the table to find a solution for the encampment. It wasn’t focused on the arising health issues but, instead, predicated on the possibility of more lawsuits being filed against the city and county by other property owners at Tent City.

Numerous interviews with city and county leaders made it clear that the county knew about the rat problem at Tent City for at least a month before the order, but it’s not clear when the problem escalated to an “infestation”, necessitating the abatement order.

WBTV reached out to the county for clarity on when the inspections resulted in a clear need for the abatement order. In response, a county spokesperson emailed WBTV “These questions were asked, answered and widely reported multiple times after last Thursday and Friday’s media availabilities.”

During a press conference on Thursday Diorio said the rat infestation became clear “late last week.”

One source told WBTV that Deputy County Manager Anthony Trotman knew about the infestation as early as Saturday before the abatement order was issued

However, statements from the City of Charlotte, CMPD and other agencies made clear that they were not informed of the abatement order until shortly before it was announced publicly on Tuesday.

City vs County

The lack of communication between the city and the county flummoxed elected leaders WBTV spoke with, who say it was clear the two governments would need to collaborate on the order, especially on the issues of transporting people from Tent City and enforcement.

During a press conference on Thursday, February 18, Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio said that City Manager Marcus Jones had promised to make CATS buses available to move people from Tent City but was running into an issue of finding security for the drivers.

“So after all these conversations, we still don’t have any commitment that they are going to provide the transportation they said they would,” Diorio said during the press conference.

“I was surprised, and quite frankly, very disappointed.”

However, sources tell WBTV that Jones was surprised to hear Diorio calling him out during the press conference and that the situation has led to “bad blood” between the city and county manager.

According to sources, Jones told Diorio about the need for the county to find security for the bus drivers but at that point Diorio said that the county would handle transportation on their own.

The county had difficulty providing security for the bus drivers because Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden, who also said in a public statement he was not given advanced notice about the abatement order, had declined requests for his deputies to act as security on the busses, citing “limited details and logistics.”

While Jones took Diorio’s comment that the county would handle transportation themselves genuinely, it was clear during Diorio’s press conference Thursday that the relationship between the two was strained.

City and county leaders WBTV spoke with for this story said that relationship will have to be rectified because the two will have to work together on numerous issues moving forward.

Transparency and communication

It’s not the only relationship with the county manager that has gotten rockier over the past week.

An email obtained by WBTV, shows County Commissioner Laura Meier emailed Diorio and other county commissioners asking if the 72 hour abatement order could be extended so they could find a solution other than law enforcement if some of the people at Tent City refused to leave.

After two exchanges between the them, Diorio responded to Meier by writing “Laura, Please let us do our job. Thanks.”

Meier responded by writing “I have a job to do as well.”

“We should all-- this board, staff, city, grass roots groups--be communicating and working together, not against each other,” Meier wrote.

In talking with elected leaders, WBTV found there was both respect and frustration for Diorio during this incident.

On the one hand, elected leaders told WBTV it’s clear that Diorio is fiercely loyal and protective of the county and that she’s been tasked with an extraordinarily difficulty job, one that she does admirably.

Others said Diorio and the county only deserve some of the blame for the Tent City debacle and that communication could have been handled better from all levels of government.

On the other hand, there’s growing frustration among elected leaders about the lack of communication from her office, with some commissioners saying that she keeps them in the dark.

Their frustration with Tent City is that the surprise abatement order could have jeopardized people’s safety unnecessarily.

While all of the sources WBTV spoke with understood the need to move people from the encampment because of the rat infestation, the lack of communication could have resulted in a standoff between activists, the homeless and police as the order to remove people reached its deadline on Friday.

During a Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, when the order was announced, a couple of commissioners highlighted the need for transparency during the abatement order process. After a week of miscommunication and finger pointing, sources say the need for transparency is even greater.

Timeline

  • January/February – Meetings taking place between county and city stakeholders about the Tent City encampment and the need for collaboration.
  • January/February – Environmental Health Specialists with county make visits to the encampment and note the deteriorating health conditions, including the emergence of rats.
  • Week of February 8th – Environmental Health Specialists begin noting evidence of a “rodent infestation.” During a press conference the following Thursday, County Manager Dena Diorio said it was recognized “late last week.”
  • February 10th – Diorio, City Manager Marcus Jones and other important stakeholders with the city and county have a meeting strategize about solutions for the Tent City encampment. While there is a discussion about the ongoing visits from the specialists, there is no mention of an impending abatement order.
  • February 16th – Mecklenburg County announces the abatement order for Tent City due to the rat infestation. Public statements from the City of Charlotte and other government agencies made it clear they were only given notice about the order shortly before it was made public.

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