The Charlotte City Council tightened its ethics rules for elected officials Monday, requiring council members to tell the public more about their business dealings and forbidding many gifts.
The new ethics policy comes in the wake of the biggest scandal in local government history: the case of former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon. He was arrested last year on federal corruption charges after taking bribes from undercover FBI agents, and pleaded guilty to one count. The former mayor is now serving a 44-month prison sentence.
“I think this is probably the most far-reaching, strongest ethics policy a council in these parts has seen in a long time,” said council member David Howard, chairman of the governance and accountability committee. He acknowledged the policy wouldn’t have stopped Cannon, however.
“There’s not a lot we could do as a policy body to stop what happened,” he said.
The council’s new policy doesn’t require lobbyists to register and report their dealings with city officials, leaving Charlotte as the largest U.S. city without such a requirement. The policy would also still allow council members to accept tickets to events.
Council members will now examine more rigorous disclosure requirements for members of advisory boards. They discussed whether lobbyist disclosures should be required, with some council members strongly opposed to such a measure.
“It seems like we’re trying to create a fixer for what is overwhelmingly not a problem,” said council member Lawana Mayfield. “Let’s be realistic about not putting handcuffs on ourselves when it comes to governing.”
Council member Kenny Smith pushed for an amendment that would have banned council members from taking tickets. But he met with strong opposition from City Council members during discussions prior to the vote. No one seconded his amendment, which failed.
City Council members said they worried about mixing their private lives and jobs with their council duties. Vi Lyles said she serves on other boards and with groups that give her tickets and access to events.
“I’m just not sure how to fit in things like that,” said Lyles. “Many of us are invited not only as council members.”
Howard said if all such complimentary tickets are forbidden to council members, only wealthy council members will be able to attend such events.
“It’s official capacity. We shouldn’t pass that burden on to this council,” Howard said. He said he is often stopped by people who want to talk about council business at sporting and other events, making them official business.
Smith said: “The goal for me is stop the peddling of influence.”
“I can think of no reason I need to do city business at Panthers stadium that I can’t do right here on the 15th floor of the Government Center,” he said.
He said he was invited to the Charlotte Knights opening game, bypassing four hours of waiting, even though there wasn’t a city government-related purpose for him to attend.
“That is access that an ordinary citizen would not have,” Smith said.
Mayfield said some council members would be shut out of relationship-building events under a ticket ban.
“I do have a concern if I’m not in a space because of certain limitations I may have” while wealthy members can attend events in suites, she said. “Based on their personal relationships and their corporate circles, they’re in that space.”
“I’m not gonna live in someone’s home rent-free for six months. I’m not gonna have access to a condo,” she said, referencing the Cannon case.
“We’re all now in this space, it seems, of fear, to create this legislation not to have this happen again,” she said. “No matter what ordinances we create ... if you’re interested in not being a public servant, if you’re interested in your own personal spotlight, you’ll take advantage.”
The old ethics policy vs. the new policy
The city’s former policy:
▪ Required elected officials to disclose any business entity in which the official or a member of their household is an owner, an officer or a director; list their job and their spouse’s job; and list all property they own inside Mecklenburg County.
The new policy:
▪ Requires elected officials to make disclosures on a new “statement of economic interest form.” They must report their interests – generally considered stock – in companies that are doing business or trying to do business with the city, as well as list any property that they lease to or from the city, or that they have bought or sold from the city. The minimum threshold for reporting is $10,000. The form also requires the disclosure of any companies or nonprofits doing business with the city where an official’s immediate family members are directors or employees, and real estate ownership in the city.
▪ Forbids elected officials from accepting gifts or meals. Exceptions include tickets to events, such as sports games or concerts, where the city has a business reason for being represented. Officials could also accept food and drink at such events. Nominal gifts under $50, mementos related to civil events and gifts from friends and family are also excepted.
▪ Allows the city to hire an outside attorney to handle investigations of complaints against City Council members. The former policy called for the city attorney to investigate council members, the same people who hire and fire the city attorney and set his pay.
The new policy does not:
▪ Require lobbyists to register with the city and report their interactions with elected officials, a policy that most other large cities have enacted.