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Council explores ethics in wake of Patrick Cannon scandal

MAYOR FORUM
Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon

The Charlotte City Council is considering changes designed to boost city ethics following corruption charges against former Mayor Patrick Cannon.

The City Council discussed Monday creating a hotline telephone number for employees or citizens to report questionable behavior by a public official. Council members also said they would study further their interactions with city staff members who work in permitting and zoning – two government functions often mentioned in the federal government’s affidavit against Cannon.

The discussion was the first time council members have talked about the Cannon case at a regular meeting since he was arrested on March 26.

Cannon is accused of taking $48,000 in cash bribes along with other gifts in return for using his office to help FBI agents posing as real estate investors. If convicted on all charges, he faces up to 50 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.

Council members Monday steered clear of other issues related to the Cannon case.

They did not discuss whether they should make public disclosures about having meetings or communications with developers. They also didn’t talk about having more clarity on their campaign finance reports, which were often lacking information about a donor’s occupation and line of work.

In addition, it’s unclear whether a hotline can change a culture in which some people feel pressure from their supervisors to act. City Manager Ron Carlee suggested creating the hotline.

Some council members, for instance, believe that Cannon pressured Carlee to hire Cannon’s former campaign spokeswoman, Coleen Brannan, as a city consultant. Carlee hired Brannan on a 10-month contract for just under $90,000 shortly before Cannon was arrested.

Brannan terminated her contract with the city after Cannon was arrested. Carlee has said Cannon never asked him to hire Brannan, and he added that Brannan brought the city a unique set of skills that were needed.

He said Monday the city doesn’t need a replacement for Brannan’s services.

At-large council member David Howard, a Democrat, led the discussion Monday. He said he believed Cannon’s alleged actions were isolated, and he didn’t “want to throw the baby out with the bath water.”

But he added there was some “low-hanging fruit” the council could address. One is a discussion of how elected officials interact with staff members who work in permitting and zoning. The city and county are working to streamline the permitting processes, which have been described as cumbersome.

The federal government alleged that Cannon boasted to undercover agents posing as developers that, in exchange for gifts and cash, he could ensure a development would have no problems with those departments. He also claimed to have influence over the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and the fire department.

At-large council member Michael Barnes, a Democrat, questioned whether any new rules might go too far.

“At some point you start cutting off what district reps (do) … advocating for or against a project,” Barnes said.

Barnes was addressing what’s a common practice among some elected officials: meeting with city officials to discuss residents’ concerns. Sometimes it’s about a possible rezoning needed for a development, while other times it can be a meeting to prod the city to make a change, such as adding a stoplight or a sidewalk.

Howard said he agreed with Barnes’ concerns.

“You are right,” he said. “There isn’t a lot in our policy that could stop what allegedly happened.”

The city is still gathering documents to comply with a federal subpoena related to the Cannon case. City Attorney Bob Hagemann said Monday that there have been no other arrests or transfers of city employees related to the Cannon investigation.

Republican Kenny Smith said he wanted council members to “eliminate areas where we get special treatment,” such as accepting free tickets to events.

“We tell ourselves it’s in an official capacity,” Smith said.

Republican Ed Driggs agreed. He said he was asked to appear at an event at a Carolina Panthers football game but declined.

“To go and sit and watch the game would be too chummy,” he said.

The federal government’s affidavit against Cannon doesn’t mention accepting free sports tickets, though Cannon is alleged to have accepted money and free plane tickets to Las Vegas.

Council members voted unanimously for the governance and accountability committee to study the issue further.

Democrat John Autry asked who is tasked with investigating an allegation of impropriety under the city’s current ethics policy.

Hagemann said it’s his job – though he isn’t comfortable with possibly investigating council members, who set his pay and can fire him.

“I think it’s appropriate for me to offer advice – not appropriate for me to investigate,” he said.

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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