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Action against city over Panthers deal faces dismissal

A judge is poised to dismiss a complaint filed on behalf of former TV reporters against the city of Charlotte over closed-door negotiations with the Carolina Panthers about stadium improvements.

Attorney Paul Whitfield, who brought the complaint in April, said Tuesday that he has been informed that Superior Court Judge Robert Sumner intends to throw out the suit within days when an order is drafted.

Three former reporters – Mike Cozza of WBTV, Ken Koontz of WBTV and Bruce Bowers of WBTV and WSOC – claimed that the City Council’s closed-door meetings over stadium improvements for the Panthers were not permitted under the N.C. Open Meetings Law and violated a 1973 permanent injunction from then-Judge Frank Snepp ordering the City Council to adhere to the law. Wayne Powers, a talk show host, joined the three men in the action.

Whitfield said he was told that the case was being thrown out because Snepp’s ruling referred to an earlier version of the state’s Open Meetings Law, which the Legislature rewrote in the late 1970s.

“We tried to get this case decided without filing a whole new lawsuit,” said Cozza, explaining why the four complained that the City Council violated Snepp’s order. “I guess we could file a suit, and we’ll have to take a look at that.

“But that could be expensive. This might be a case of ‘you can’t fight City Hall.’ ”

In a closed meeting Jan. 14, the City Council voted 7-2 to ask the General Assembly whether it would 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 negotiations preceding that decision took place in closed session.

City attorney: No law broken

City Attorney Bob Hagemann said Tuesday that the City Council did not break the Open Meetings Law.

“I was part of the process to go into closed session,” Hagemann said.

“The law lets them discuss matters related to the relocation or expansion of business or industry. In our view, we were there to talk about the location of a business, and the retention of a business through economic incentives.”

Whitfield’s motion asked that the city be cited for contempt of court.

Whitfield asked that the city be fined at least $1.4 million – 1 percent of the $144 million that council discussed giving the Panthers.

On Tuesday, Cozza said he believes he and the others were correct to file the action.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that, based on its merits, we would have won this case,” he said.

Cozza said he and the others have not made a decision on what to do next.

“We’ll study the decision and then decide,” he said.

Staff writers Steve Harrison and Mark Washburn contributed.

Lyttle: 704-358-6107
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