Politics & Government

July 5, 2014

‘Constituent services’ gets a second look on Charlotte council

It’s understood that Charlotte City Council members will bypass the city manager and talk to staff on behalf of their constituents, but where’s the appropriate line?

After his guilty plea in June, former Mayor Patrick Cannon apologized for accepting money for “constituent services.”

He sold his influence and crossed a legal line. Next to that line, however, is a gray area: whether elected officials should lean on staff members for faster results on requests or complaints from the public, which can include campaign contributors.

It’s widely understood inside the Government Center that elected officials will bypass the chain of command to contact city staff to help a constituent with a problem.

The line between being a responsive council member and one who exerts too much influence can be difficult to define, officials and experts say.

The issue could be described as “You know it when you see it.”

A City Council committee is debating whether routine requests for information could be construed as giving orders and crossing that line. Its members could make recommendations to the council later this summer.

City Manager Ron Carlee also has sent out a memo outlining the city’s official and unofficial views on when and how elected officials should become involved in the city’s day-to-day operations.

Council members and the mayor hire the city manager, who is responsible for overseeing city employees’ work and executing policy. In theory, elected officials are responsible for setting a broad vision for the city.

Carlee cited the city charter, which states: “... Neither the Mayor, the Council, nor any member thereof shall direct the conduct or activities of any City employee, directly or indirectly, except through the City Manager.”

In the email, however, Carlee said there are times when it’s OK for elected officials to speak directly with managers or staff members.

“Informational requests are not directives and do not conflict with the form of government,” Carlee wrote. “Similarly, making a constituent referral does not conflict with the form of government.”

Calling staff members to inform them about a residential flooding problem? OK.

Threatening them with reprisal if the problem isn’t fixed? Not OK.

Suggesting that a problem should be prioritized over anything else? Hard to say.

Layton Lamb worked for the city for nearly 30 years, including 13 years as the city’s street supervisor, before retiring last year.

“I do know (the city) staff rushes – they will drop things when a politician calls,” Lamb said.

He said, however, that he didn’t have to accommodate elected officials seeking favors “outside of regular policy.” Usually they would ask whether a road could be repaved faster.

“We would have to go out and look” at the road, he said. “There were times when we granted the request because it needed it. There were times that we didn’t grant the request because we couldn’t move it ahead.”

Former CATS Chief Executive Ron Tober said when the original light-rail line was under construction from 2005-07, he fielded calls from politicians concerned about businesses.

“We had some businesses that (the rail line) impacted their access,” Tober said. “There was some grumbling. Occasionally I would hear from a council member.”

Apart from the rail line, politicians would usually call about bus stop locations, he said.

“A council member would say, ‘People are trashing (a resident or business owner’s property).’ Then we look and see what we could do. Taking care of businesses is part of the landscape. That wasn’t unusual to get pressure.”

Tober added: “I never felt there was any behind stuff going on, other than campaign contributions, and (donors) expecting elected officials to stand up for them. That’s just my experience.”

Martin Cramton, who retired as the city’s planning director in 2001, said he recalls council members asking about project updates. He said no one encouraged him to support a development.

“If they called at all, it would be to find out about the status of something,” he said. “They would be responding to a constituent.”

Restricting an elected official’s access to staff members is unnecessary and even detrimental, some say.

At the May City Council meeting, when the issue was discussed, Michael Barnes, mayor pro tem, said council members need to convey the concerns of their constituents.

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

Barnes said he was particularly concerned about rezoning issues, when a council member would want staff members to understand residents’ concerns.

Republican attorney Richard Vinroot, who was mayor from 1991 to 1995, said residents expect elected officials to help navigate city bureaucracy.

“They shouldn’t overreact,” Vinroot said about the ethics discussion. “Council members shouldn’t just communicate with the manager (one of three city employees who they hire). There is a middle ground. A City Council member or mayor doesn’t call someone and say, ‘Hey, do this. I’m the mayor.’ But you tell people that you hope they’ll take this seriously and give someone a fair consideration. (Elected officials) need to be responsive.”

Vinroot said he doesn’t recall an elected official “crossing the line” and ordering a particular decision.

Martha Perego is the ethics director of International City/County Management Association in Washington. She said it’s impractical for elected officials to follow the organizational chart and only communicate with the manager but added that local staff members need to understand that they shouldn’t drop everything for a request.

“What managers want to avoid is a situation where you have staff going in 10 different directions,” Perego said. “That can be disruptive ... because council members have formal power and informal power. Even a council member inquiring about why a street hasn’t been paved – that can sound like an order.”

She said some cities set up systems for staff members to refer all requests to the manager’s office or a department head.

Before the Cannon scandal, Carlee said he met with his top executives and asked them about their comfort with elected officials. He said his managers didn’t see any undue influence.

Carlee said if staff members are uncomfortable with a request, they should say they’ll speak with their managers.

The occasional problem, Carlee said, was an elected official’s request that might violate a so-called “four-hour rule.” That rule – a city guideline for at least 30 years – says that if a council member’s request takes more than four hours of staff time, it must be approved by a majority of council members.

It doesn’t appear to be a source of conflict on the current or past councils.

Former City Manager Curt Walton said the rule was helpful for “time and policy management” with 11 council members and the mayor.

“I can’t recall any significant conflict or controversy over the rule,” said City Attorney Bob Hagemann, who has worked in the city for nearly 20 years.

It’s also unclear whether the four-hour rule could be enforced in all situations. If a council member makes a public records request that takes more than four hours to complete, the city would be obligated to fulfill it, even if the majority of council members didn’t approve.

Republican Edwin Peacock, a council member from 2007 to 2011 who lost to Cannon in the 2013 mayoral race, said working for constituents sometimes means calling staff members.

“People expect that,” he said.

He said a developer called him about a problem over a fire hydrant’s placement in a new commercial development. The friend had to talk to both city and county officials and asked Peacock for help.

Peacock said he asked the city attorney’s office to arrange a meeting with county officials to resolve the issue.

“Staff is naturally going to try and please you,” Peacock said. “I would say you have crossed the line if you are asking a staff member to break from a written policy. The board member’s job is to help resolve the problem by getting the appropriate staff to speak with the parties involved. Your role as a board member is a facilitator.”

Staff researcher Maria David contributed.

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