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Lawyer takes Charlotte to court over private Panthers dealing

By Gary L. Wright and Steve Lyttle
gwright@charlotteobserver.com

A Charlotte lawyer on Tuesday accused the Charlotte City Council of violating North Carolina’s open meetings law when it agreed in closed session in January to support a tax hike for renovating Bank of America Stadium.

Paul Whitfield, in a motion filed in Superior Court, asked that the city be cited for contempt of court and fined at least $1.4 million. That’s 1 percent of the $144 million that City Council discussed giving to the Carolina Panthers for upgrading their stadium.

In a closed meeting Jan. 14, the City Council voted 7-2 to support increasing the food and beverage tax from 1 percent to 2 percent. That would have provided $144 million of the $300 million that Panthers officials say is needed to make improvements at the stadium.

The proposal to increase the food and beverage tax was scuttled when state lawmakers said they would not support the plan. Instead, lawmakers suggested that city officials use existing hotel tax money. Council members say that probably would amount to about $120 million.

City Attorney Bob Hagemann told the Observer that he’s confident the council’s closed session meetings to discuss the Panthers did not violate the open meetings law.

“The North Carolina Open Meetings law authorizes closed sessions to discuss economic development transactions with specific businesses, including consideration of incentives that may be offered,” Hagemann said. “That’s what the city council has done in an effort to ensure that the Carolina Panthers remain in Charlotte.”

Hagemann pointed out that in February, the council released more information than what is required by law about a closed session.

Whitfield and his clients – longtime journalists Bruce Bowers, Mike Cozza, Ken Koontz and Wayne Powers – contend the Jan. 14 council meeting, as well as a Feb. 8 meeting, should have taken place in open session.

Whitfield says lawsuits he helped successfully argue nearly 40 years ago against the City Council, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education require open meetings for such negotiations.

As a result of those lawsuits, then-Superior Court Judge Frank Snepp placed all three government bodies under permanent injunctions against breaking the open meetings law.

“A permanent injunction is permanent,” Whitfield’s clients said in a statement. “We contend the city violated Judge Snepp’s injunction and the N.C. Open Meetings Law with closed discussions and a secret tax vote. The mayor and city council have grown increasingly arrogant in handling public business behind closed doors. They now seek a major tax hike as if it were some private matter.”

The journalists said their contempt motion is nonpartisan.

“It is not aimed at blocking renovation of the stadium,” they said. “But it does intend to penalize the city for trampling on the mandate of the open meetings law – to conduct public business in public, for voters to see, hear and understand.”

City Council members were asked in January why the meeting was closed.

“I don’t have an answer for that,” councilman Warren Cooksey told the Observer.

Council member Beth Pickering said the negotiations, which took place with Panthers’ owner Jerry Richardson, were private because the team is “important” to Charlotte and that open negotiations might have fueled “misimpressions.”

Wright: 704 358-5052
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