Judge denies motion in GOP lawsuit alleging Mecklenburg commissioners broke the law

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 judge on Monday denied a motion by the Mecklenburg County Republican Party that would have temporarily stopped county commissioners from trading reply-all emails with each other about government business.

The GOP has filed a lawsuit alleging that eight of the nine Mecklenburg County commissioners violated the state open meetings law in May when they negotiated the budget outside public view by using email.

The suit says that Commissioners Chair George Dunlap and other commissioners negotiated changes to county’s roughly $2 billion budget using reply-all email to avoid public backlash over a proposed property tax increase.

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.

At a hearing Monday, attorney Jim Cooney, who is representing the commissioners, said the officials did nothing wrong. Cooney’s comments represented the first public statement from the county since the lawsuit was filed last week.

Commissioners conducted as many as nine public meetings about the budget — including a session in May that came days after emails were exchanged— giving the public ample chance to provide input, Cooney said. Dunlap tried to simply provide information to other officials, he said.

“The real problem is the mischaracterization of the email itself,” Cooney argued. “He didn’t say ‘We voted on this.’ There is zero proof of deliberations.”

Attorney Jeremy Stephenson, who is representing the GOP, said emails exchanged between Dunlap and other commissioners constituted an electronic meeting.

“If you can’t have a conference call involving all nine of them, you can’t have email involving all nine of them,” Stephenson said.

Mecklenburg Special Superior Court Judge Adam Conrad ruled Monday that he would not issue a temporary restraining order to halt commissioners from exchanging reply-all emails.

The case centers around an email sent by Dunlap from his personal account to other commissioners seeking input on the budget.

In an email, dated May 22, Dunlap told commissioners he had a list of budget changes commissioners wanted.

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

“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, who was not named in the GOP lawsuit.

Fred Clasen-Kelly covers government accountability for The Charlotte Observer, with a focus on social justice. He has worked in Charlotte more than a decade reporting on affordable housing, criminal justice and other issues. He previously worked at the Indianapolis Star.