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Mecklenburg leaders broke law with private budget talks, suit claims

Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners Chairman George Dunlap had private conversations with commissioners about the nearly $2 billion proposed budget, according to emails.
Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners Chairman George Dunlap had private conversations with commissioners about the nearly $2 billion proposed budget, according to emails. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

A lawsuit filed Tuesday says Mecklenburg County commissioners violated the state open meetings law in May when they negotiated the budget outside public view by using email.

The suit was filed by the Mecklenburg County Republican Party and names eight of the nine members of the Board of Commissioners as defendants.

It comes about a month after an Observer report disclosed emails showing that Board Chair George Dunlap and other commissioners discussed changes to the county’s nearly $2 billion budget during phone calls and emails exchanged with each other.

“This appears to be a deliberate end-run around the open meetings law,” said Jeremy Stephenson, an attorney for the Mecklenburg Republican Party. “We are trying to shine a light on these questionable practices.”

Dunlap did not return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.

Dunlap has previously denied any wrongdoing and accused the media of falsely portraying his actions.

North Carolina law says that public boards must give public notice of meetings and keep them open with few exceptions, according to the UNC School of Government, which assists local governments.

A gathering where a majority of the board is present either in person or electronically is considered a public meeting, the School of Government says. A single group email from a commissioner is allowed, but a simultaneous exchange of emails — “analogous to a conversation” — may constitute a meeting, the UNC School of Government says.

The suit centers around emails Dunlap and commissioners sent in May ahead of their votes to approve the budget.

The vote was considered significant because the proposed budget from County Manager Dena Diorio raised taxes for most county property owners.

The adjustments discussed included an additional $1 million for parks operations and $2 million for land acquisition.

In an email from his personal account, dated May 22, Dunlap told commissioners he had compiled a list of budget amendments commissioners wanted to see.

During an upcoming meeting, he wrote, he would call for a vote on the recommended changes.

“Having listened to each of you, the motion should pass unanimously,” Dunlap wrote. “When this motion passes, we can adjourn the meeting.”

The changes passed a May meeting, with the lone dissenting vote coming from Commissioner Pat Cotham.

She has said she voted against the budget because she believes Dunlap tried to circumvent state open meetings law.

“Transparency is important from the beginning to the end and I feel transparency at the end of this process has been jeopardized,” Cotham wrote in a May 24 email to commissioners. “Not having a lengthy discussion robs the process of transparency.”

The lawsuit does not name Cotham as a defendant.

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