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Judge: City’s secrecy is just fine

When Charlotte’s City Council met privately last year, members were to talk about keeping the NFL’s Carolina Panthers in town. They talked about a lot more than that, though, and now a Superior Court judge’s approval of their actions threatens to rewrite what politicians statewide can and can’t do behind closed doors.

State law says elected bodies must meet in open with a few specific exceptions. To talk about helping the Panthers, the City Council four times cited this exception: “… to discuss matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses in the area served by the public body, including agreement on a tentative list of economic development incentives that may be offered by the public body in negotiations.”

Fine. But the council didn’t discuss only incentives for the Panthers, minutes of the meetings show. They debated and ultimately agreed on a plan to hike the food and beverage tax by 1 percentage point, a move that would raise $1 billion or so over 30 years, about seven times more than needed to fund the Panthers incentives. They also discussed how they could spend all that extra money, including on amateur sports facilities, such as for basketball courts, soccer fields, a tennis facility and a baseball complex.

This, Superior Court Judge Nathaniel Poovey ruled Thursday, is perfectly appropriate. With that one swift decision, Poovey guts the state’s open meetings laws – certainly the spirit of them and arguably the letter of them as well.

The city argued that the statute’s phrase “matters relating to” covers all of the council’s actions, because they were all related. That’s clever, but frightening to taxpayers and fans of transparency.

If elected officials can use the narrow exception of discussing incentives for specific businesses to privately agree to hundreds of millions of dollars of unrelated projects and tax hikes, the open meetings law is rendered meaningless. Public bodies’ ability to secretly craft plans for taxing and spending in North Carolina becomes virtually unlimited.

The plaintiffs, who include three former Charlotte newsmen, undercut their case by arguing that even agreeing on incentives for the team violated the law because the city was not trying to recruit the Panthers, nor was there proof they were on the verge of leaving. Poovey was right to dismiss that argument.

It was all the City Council did in closed session beyond helping the Panthers that was problematic.

Poovey’s ruling appears to be the first N.C. case law that addresses whether the incentives exception also covers secret discussions around raising taxes to pay for those incentives and other projects. The plaintiffs should appeal to a higher court. In the meantime, the legislature should sew up the hole Charlotte and the judge just blew through the open meetings laws.

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