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Suit over city-Panthers meeting in court Thursday

The case between four former media members and the City of Charlotte, over negotiations between the city and the Carolina Panthers for stadium improvements, is expected to be heard by a judge Thursday afternoon.

Superior Court Judge Robert Sumner is scheduled to hear a request from city attorneys to dismiss the case, which was brought in early April by four men who say Charlotte officials violated the open meetings law when it discussed the deal with the Panthers.

Attorney Paul Whitfield, representing the four ex-media members, filed a motion April 2, asking that the city be cited for contempt of court and fined at least $1.4 million -- 1 percent of the $144 million that Charlotte City Council discussed giving the Panthers for stadium improvements.

The four former media members are Ken Koontz, Mike Cozza, Bruce Bowers and Wayne Powers. Several of them were involved in the original North Carolina Open Meetings trial in the 1970s, argued by Whitfield. Then-Superior Court Judge Frank Snepp put city council, Mecklenburg County commissioners and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board under permanent injunctions against breaking the open meetings law.

In a closed meeting Jan. 14, 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 said was needed to make improvements at Bank of America Stadium.

The tax increase proposal was scuttled when state lawmakers said they would not support the plan.

City Attorney Bob Hagemann told the Observer in April that he’s confident the council’s closed session meetings (another session took place Feb. 8) 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.”

Whitfield said his clients “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.”

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