Google holds closed-door reception for public officials

On Tuesday, Google held a news conference to tell media and the rest of Charlotte that the city had been selected for its new high-speed Internet service.

On Wednesday, the Silicon Valley company celebrated the arrival of Google Fiber with public officials and others at a Google-sponsored reception that was closed to the public.

The private celebration at The Liberty restaurant included a majority of the Charlotte City Council, raising questions about compliance with the state’s open meetings law.

That law prohibits a majority of elected officials from meeting in a business capacity, but there are exceptions for non-business functions, such as social events.

For instance, a majority of council members could appear at a charity event or a party at someone’s house – so long as they weren’t “transacting the public business.”

City Attorney Bob Hagemann said Wednesday morning that he didn’t know the details of the Google reception.

It’s not clear what happened at the event. But bringing Google Fiber to Charlotte will require the city and the Mountain View, Calif.-based company to work closely together. The company has come under criticism in the past for leaving poorer neighborhoods behind as it rolls out its service.

Google has worked with the city to identify sites for infrastructure to support its new network and will be working with city officials as it lays cable.

The company, which will take years to build the service, has said it’s not receiving tax incentives or subsidies.

Others invited to the event included County Manager Dena Diorio, City Manager Ron Carlee, members of a high-speed Internet advocacy group and a representative of Queens University of Charlotte.

An Observer reporter was turned away from the event by a Google representative.

The company invited dozens of organizations to “an informal reception” in order “to get to know the Charlotte community better,” a Google representative said.

The invitation said the “reception portion” of the event “has been planned to comply with Congressional and North Carolina state ethics rules,” adding: “Stricter rules may apply to county and city officials.” Invitees could contact Google if they want to reimburse the company for their attendance.

Sandy D’Elosua, Charlotte’s director of communications, said the reception was not a city-sponsored event. A representative of MVA Public Affairs, the lobbying arm of the Moore & Van Allen law firm that sent the initial invitations, did not respond to a request for comment.

Amanda Martin, an attorney with the N.C. Press Association, acknowledged that a majority of an elected body can attend a social meeting, but she said “they cannot discuss or even receive information about public business.”

She said it was “almost impossible to believe” the open meetings law wasn’t broken.

The City Council has been more cautious to comply with the open meetings law in the past. In the fall of 2012, a majority of City Council members attended a Charlotte Chamber trip to New York City that included a tour of a new football stadium for the Giants and Jets football teams. During the meeting, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson addressed the guests, which included council members.

At the time, the city was in early discussions with the Panthers about helping pay for renovations at Bank of America Stadium.

In an effort to make sure the city wasn’t violating the law, the city decided to have one council member step outside of the room. That would bring the number of elected officials inside to less than a majority.

Council members are debating a new ethics policy that is being created in the wake of former Mayor Patrick Cannon’s arrest on federal corruption charges in March.

A draft of the policy prohibits council members from accepting gifts as well as food and beverages.

There are exceptions, however. One carve-out could apply to events like the Google reception: “Food, beverage, or transportation is provided during a conference, meeting, or similar event … (so that it) … is available to all attendees of the same class as the recipient.” Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed.