This week, a Catawba County judge could settle a lingering debate in Charlotte:
Did the City Council break the law by privately discussing and voting to offer millions of dollars in incentives to keep the Carolina Panthers in town?
For almost two hours Tuesday, attorneys for the council and its four accusers offered different answers to Superior Court Judge Nathaniel Poovey.
During four closed meetings from September 2012 to March 2013, the council debated and then endorsed a food-and-beverage tax increase to pay for millions of dollars in improvements to Bank of America Stadium. While team owner Jerry Richardson and other team officials attended two of those meetings, the public was not invited.
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In the end, the council did not get legislative approval to raise the tax. Instead, the city got the go-ahead to divert $87.5 million from the existing tax.
But veteran newsmen Mike Cozza, Bruce Bowers, Ken Koontz and Wayne Powers said those private discussions and votes violated the open meetings law.
Attorney Donald Brown accused the council Tuesday of exploiting an exemption to the law that allows officials to discuss economic-development incentives in private. In voting to make a tax increase the centerpiece of their offer to the city’s NFL team, Brown said the council was trying “to drive a Mack truck through a very narrow exception.”
Brown also derided city fears that the team was an actual threat to leave, and he homed in on a section of the minutes in which council member Michael Barnes expressed strong concerns that the tax discussion was occurring behind closed doors.
In response, Senior Assistant City Attorney Jason Kay said Brown was arguing for the open meetings law they want, not what the state has.
The state legislature kept the economic-development exception broad, he said, to give public bodies ample leeway to negotiate economic benefits for their communities. The state Supreme Court later ruled that elected officials have few rules on what they can discuss in private, he said, including money.
The council had “concrete reasons” to believe that the Panthers might leave, Kay argued, “and the law gives fairly wide berth to exercise their discretion to do what’s best for the city.”
The original suit, filed last fall, sought to have the city fined more then $1 million. Now, both sides simply want a decision from the judge. Poovey promised one by the end of the week.
As the courtroom emptied around him, Cozza said secrecy can be an ingredient in the kind of public corruption now rocking the city. Former Mayor Patrick Cannon, who took part in the Panthers discussions as a City Council member, resigned from office last month after he was arrested and charged with taking bribes from undercover FBI agents in exchange for influencing city operations.
“Corruption grows in dark corners, away from the daylight and public scrutiny,” the former WBTV reporter said, “and the City Council has been extending this secrecy on to many things.”