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Charlotte’s city manager gets new financial power. Critics say that hurts transparency.

Charlotte City Council members recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The council on Monday voted to forgo future votes on contracts worth less than $500,000, allowing the city manager greater flexibility to make purchases and set contracts at his discretion.
Charlotte City Council members recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The council on Monday voted to forgo future votes on contracts worth less than $500,000, allowing the city manager greater flexibility to make purchases and set contracts at his discretion. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte City Council on Monday voted to forgo future votes on contracts worth less than $500,000, allowing the city manager greater flexibility to make purchases and set contracts at his discretion.

The city’s longstanding policy has been to have council members vote on all contracts worth $100,000 or more. Amounts smaller than that could generally be approved by the city manager without coming before council.

But most contracts, except for multimillion-dollar projects or especially controversial measures, have been lumped into what’s known as the “consent agenda” at each business meeting. That allows City Council to approve dozens of proposals with a single vote without discussing or scrutinizing each, though council members can “pull” items for an individual vote at their discretion.

“This change will streamline our work as a governing board,” said council member Greg Phipps. “Consent items are routine and transactional in nature.”

Council member Larken Egleston said the current $100,000 limit is a “Mayberry number.” Council member Dimple Ajmera said the change will help council avoid “micromanaging” the city manager.

Opponents, on the other hand, said the change will reduce transparency and make it harder to tell how the city is spending its $2.6 billion budget.

The change passed 8-2, with council members LaWana Mayfield and Braxton Winston voting against.

“Y’all don’t get it at all,” Winston told fellow council members. “You continue to perpetuate the status quo of putting business over the people...You are removing the ability of us to look at things, and therefore the people to look at things.”

Mayor Vi Lyles said the city has been open with citizens about its spending and will continue to do so.

“Let’s not confuse openness and transparency with micromanaging,” said Lyles.

The consent agenda allows the part-time City Council to conduct their weekly meetings more quickly. Discussing and voting on each item would cause meetings to balloon in length. For example, there were 13 policy items set aside for discussion and individual votes on Monday’s agenda, and 55 items on the consent agenda.

Advocates for the policy change said it would make city government more efficient. Having council vote on every contract over $100,000 adds four to six weeks and takes up three to six hours of staff time per contract. And such contracts are almost always approved anyway: Out of 226 such contracts on consent agendas last year, all but one received unanimous approval, according to city staff.

Contracts under $500,000 only accounted for 7 percent of the city’s spending on consent agenda items, meaning that most costly deals will still require City Council approval, staff said. The city’s internal financial controls are strong enough to make sure that money isn’t being wasted, advocates of the change said.

Opponents of the change said bringing all items over $100,000 before City Council still provides important oversight, even if members eventually approve most contracts on the consent agenda. And having such contracts on meeting agendas can provide the public and media a window into city expenditures and plans, even if they aren’t vigorously debated in meetings.

Members of the SAFE Coalition told council that they were concerned that the measure would make it easier to buy militaristic police equipment without public disclosure.

For example, Monday’s consent agenda included a $147,000 contract to develop a new, mobile app for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department that will allow people to chat with an officer, submit crime tips, file and retrieve police reports and receive alerts.

“This mobile application will be beneficial in the months leading up to the 2020 Republican National Convention,” city staff noted on the agenda. Council member LaWana Mayfield asked how the system would track false reports and any malicious uses of the system against minorities, and a police official explained how the system would work and how it would be funded going forward.

Mayfield said such scrutiny is important, and the high rate of approval for consent agenda items shouldn’t be the only benchmark for oversight.

“I think it’s also a little misleading when we say how many of the items have been approved,” she said, adding that council scrutiny and questions before items are brought up weeds out or improves dubious ideas.

“There is not as much transparency as we say we want,” she said. “There is an accountability question.”

Council member Ed Driggs said the spending under question represents a tiny fraction of the city’s $2.6 billion budget.

“I think there are more productive ways for this council to spend our time than looking over the manager’s shoulder,” said Driggs.

Winston said he’s not worried about “graft,” but the City Council still needs to carefully monitor spending. He also said city staff wanted the change more than council or the manager.

“While it might be .004 percent or less or more, government policy and government spending...has been the source of so many disparities,” said Winston, whose comments drew applause. “Don’t be bullied by staff to get something over the finish lane without getting it right.”

Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said it comes down to using time efficiently.

“It is about, for the vast majority of it, day-to-day operations we have hired a city manager to run,” she said.

Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.
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