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Charlotte waits years to release council records until WBTV investigation shines light on issue

It’s your tax dollars they’re spending, and North Carolina law says the public is entitled to this information.
Members of the city council have met behind closed doors to talk about offering incentives to major companies coming to Charlotte.
Published: Feb. 11, 2022 at 5:09 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 11, 2022 at 10:23 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Records of Charlotte City Council meetings held behind closed doors remained secret for more than two years until a WBTV Investigation prompted their release and a change in city procedure.

Members of the city council often meet behind closed doors to talk about offering incentives to major companies considering coming to Charlotte.

It’s your tax dollars they’re spending, and North Carolina law says the public is entitled to this information.

The most glaring example of closed session minutes that had not been released was related to council discussions on Major League Soccer.

The city was awarded the team on Dec. 17, 2019.

Related: Major League Soccer awards Charlotte with league’s newest team

At the announcement, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles commented on the city’s commitment that helped land the team in the Queen City.

“We have $110 million that we have reserved,” Lyles told WBTV at the time.

City leaders made a pledge to contribute $110 million in taxpayer dollars to help entice the team here, with most of it going to help develop the MLS team headquarters at the old Eastland mall site and renovate Bank of America Stadium. That deal has dramatically changed since then to a taxpayer commitment of $35 million and no MLS headquarters at Eastland.

But Charlotte City Council had many of its discussions and debates about funding the MLS initiative behind closed doors, in what’s called closed session.

Related: MLS announcement doesn’t come with details of taxpayer dollars for soccer project

Two years later the MLS team has filled out its roster, gotten a name and is prepared to play its first game in just two weeks.

But the discussion council had in closed session about bringing the team to town was only released on Thursday after WBTV started questioning why they were still secret.

“It’s a record of accountability,” NC Open Government Coalition Director Brooks Fuller told WBTV.

It’s your tax dollars they’re spending, and North Carolina law says the public is entitled to this information.

Fuller often focuses on closed-session issues because the reasons for entering them are tailored but there are different implications for when the record of minutes will be released.

“Closed session statute covers things like consulting with an attorney about a pending lawsuit, or could be discussing a sensitive personnel matter,” Fuller said.

It also covers discussions on the location or expansion of businesses and economic incentives to bring them to town.

Related: Money, Politics and Panthers: Charlotte elected leaders receive donations from Panthers brass right before MLS talks

Deals the City of Charlotte has entered into for Major League Soccer, Centene and Lowes.

NC state statute says those closed session minutes can remain secret as long as their release would “frustrate the purpose of a closed session.”

But there’s another law that is much clearer regarding economic development deals.

“When that specific project has reached an endpoint, whether they’ve announced that they’re coming to Charlotte or Raleigh or Wilmington, at that point in time, it is very clear that the law has been triggered and private documents ought to become public,” Fuller said.

The law says the records should be released within 25 business days after the project is announced.

Related: Records show Charlotte lacks money for a new stadium

But the City of Charlotte has kept many of these records secret. According to the city records portal, the last time the city released closed session minutes was in August of 2019. Since then, there have been dozens of record requests for closed session minutes, many of them duplicates but unfulfilled nonetheless.

After WBTV’s questions to city leaders, five sets of closed session minutes or general accounts were released Thursday, including the MLS discussions and a brief outline regarding Centene.

“Once that club and the city agreed on set of economic incentives and agreed on a deal with its owner, then documents related to that, and discussions related to that deal become public. It’s pretty clear there,” Fuller said.

WBTV reached out to the City of Charlotte about why closed session minutes were kept secret, years after they’re legally required to be released to the public.

WBTV emailed City Clerk Stephanie Kelly, who records the minutes, Economic Development Director Tracy Dodson and City Attorney Patrick Baker and asked for interviews. No one agreed.

Related: Charlotte soccer fans disappointed by Charlotte FC season ticket prices

In an email Stephanie Kelly wrote that the clerk’s process will change thanks to WBTV’s questions saying “Minutes of closed sessions are released upon authorization from the City Attorney’s Office.”

“As a result of recent discussions and review, my office will routinely submit closed session meeting minutes for release upon legal review and authorization,” Kelly wrote.

She concluded with “Any legal questions legal questions should be referred to the City Attorney’s Office.”

Since WBTV started questioning city leaders, Charlotte’s public records portal shows that a number of requests for closed-session minutes are now in the “legal review” stage.

Baker did not respond to Kelly’s email or a follow-up email from WBTV asking for an explanation of where the record requests ended up stuck for two years.

Highlights of closed session meetings from 9/23/2019, 11/12/2019, 11/18/2019 on MLS

  • On Sept 23, 2019, city staff presented possibility of a “tether” for the Panthers in relation to MLS coming to Charlotte. Economic Development Director Tracy Dodson said “the ask is $110 million. In exchange, there would be a non-relocation agreement for NFL and MLS.
  • On Nov 12, 2019 city staff reported agreement would include 15 year non-relocation for MLS but nothing regarding NFL. Councilmembers pressed that they wanted NFL on table if city was paying $110 million. At the time, deal planned was for MLS headquarters at Eastland, mixed-use/entertainment district Uptown and stadium renovations. Council also stressed importance of confidentiality and complained of leaks after media initially reported on MLS talks with city.
  • On Nov 18, 2019 city staff explained the Panthers current “tether” situation. Regarding public investment Dodson said “there is no public money spent of that $110 million until there is a mutually agreed upon vision for the district as well as the non-relocation of the Carolina Panthers.”
  • On Oct 26 in an open council meeting, Panthers COO Mark Hart told council the future of the Panthers was no longer tied to the Eastland Development. The public funding agreement changed to just $35 million, with $10 million going to Eastland and $25 million going to Bank of America Stadium renovations for MLS. MLS headquarters no longer at Eastland.
  • On Monday, Tepper Sports and Entertainment showed off $50 million worth of renovations to Bank of America Stadium to make the venue more compaible for MLS games.
  • Today, WBTV reached out to the city for a comment on the current state of public funding. Spokesperson Cory Burkarth wrote “$35 million is what the council approved and that is still the correct number. Negotiations regarding the agreements with TSE (Tepper Sports and Entertainment) are still ongoing and active and no money has been disbursed to date.”

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