Officials say CMS-Mecklenburg sales-tax talk was routine, not covert

07/09/2014 5:59 PM

07/09/2014 6:00 PM

Mecklenburg County leaders briefed Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials on a planned sales-tax referendum Wednesday, dismissing complaints by one commissioner that the meeting was secret and possibly illegal.

The chair and vice chair of both bodies met to review the county commissioners’ May vote to put a referendum on a quarter-cent sales tax hike on November’s ballot. That resolution, approved 5-4, calls for 80 percent of the revenue to go toward CMS salaries.

Meetings of public bodies are subject to N.C. Open Meetings Law, which requires public notice and an opportunity for anyone to attend, but talks that include less than a quorum are not subject to those requirements. Small numbers of elected officials frequently gather to discuss issues.

Commissioners Matthew Ridenhour and Bill James, Republicans who voted against the sales tax referendum, objected to Wednesday’s meeting. Ridenhour said he wanted to attend because “the allocation of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars” was at stake but was told he could not.

After Ridenhour emailed commissioners with his concerns, James replied – and copied his response to journalists – saying that “secret meetings to talk about how to divvy up a tax increase or how to plot to present it to the public are unseemly and diminish the board as a whole.” James also speculated that the session, which also included County Manager Dena Diorio and Superintendent Heath Morrison, would be used to plan strategy for promoting passage of the referendum, which would violate the state ban on using public resources to influence an election.

Commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller, a Democrat who supported the referendum, said after the meeting that James is “flat-out wrong.” He said the county officials filled in the CMS crew on the resolution and how it might play out but never discussed plans for any kind of campaign.

If voters approve the sales-tax hike, which is expected to bring in up to $35 million a year, commissioners would have to follow up with a vote to levy the tax. Money for CMS raises wouldn’t be available until 2015-16, Fuller said.

On Tuesday, CMS Vice Chairperson Tim Morgan said he and Chairperson Mary McCray requested the meeting because they had read about the commissioners’ vote in the newspaper but wanted a firsthand report, which they will bring to the full board.

“This is the proper role of leadership of the boards to have this conversation,” Morgan said, adding that the meeting was no secret to the rest of the school board.

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