Politics & Government

Emails show Mecklenburg commissioners discussed budget in private. Did they break the law?

Mecklenburg County commissioners had email and phone conversations about a proposed tax hike and other budget issues outside public view, raising questions about whether officials violated the state open meetings law, according to emails obtained by the Observer.

The emails show that Board Chairman George Dunlap and other commissioners negotiated changes to the county’s nearly $2 billion proposed budget during phone calls with each other.

Commissioners met Tuesday for their annual budget straw vote, where they normally debate for hours about the county’s spending priorities for the upcoming year. Citizens and groups attend to lobby for their pet causes.

But there was little debate this time, and emails suggest the all-Democratic board anticipated that.

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 the straw vote 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 during the straw vote meeting Tuesday morning, with the lone dissenting vote coming from Commissioner Pat Cotham.

“I didn’t sense any feeling of the importance of transparency to the public and that makes me sad,” Cotham said in an interview.

The vote is significant at least in part because the proposed budget from County Manager Dena Diorio would raise taxes for most county property owners.

The adjustments include an additional $1 million for parks operations and $2 million for land acquisition. They would put less money toward technology security, the Mecklenburg Health Department, tax collection and some other areas to help make up the difference, the email said.

The commissioners will have a formal vote on the budget next month.

Cotham harshly criticized Dunlap for leading the private conversations.

In emails to commissioners and others, she said she believes the emails and phone calls circumvented North Carolina’s 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. “Not having a lengthy discussion robs the process of transparency.”

What the law says

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

Any gathering where a majority of the board is present either in person or electronically is considered a public meeting, the School of Government says.

Phone calls between individual commissioners do not violate the law. The emails do not say whether Dunlap spoke to commissioners individually or in a conference call.

A single group email from a commissioner is allowed under the law, according to the School of Government.

But a simultaneous electronic exchange of emails — “analogous to a conversation” — may constitute a meeting, the School of Government says.

Jonathan Jones, former director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, which advocates for public access to government records, said he believes that Mecklenburg commissioners violated the state’s open meetings law.

Commissioners’ back-and-forth dialogue about public business represents an “electronic meeting,” Jones said.

“The School of Government has repeatedly cautioned public bodies from doing business this way,” he said. “A lot of county attorneys advise governments not to do business this way. We don’t want to see email become the new back room.”

County attorney Tyrone Wade told the commissioners in Tuesday’s meeting that conversations alone do not constitute an official meeting.

‘A back room deal’

In a volley of emails to commissioners on May 23 and May 24, Dunlap and Cotham traded barbs.

Cotham argued that the board should debate budget disagreements in public.

“I did not realize how so much agreement was going on behind the scene,” Cotham wrote on May 23. “Making our case as to why we choose to pay or not pay for things is important.... I think the people deserve better. I worry they will call it a back room deal.”

The next day, Cotham wrote to Dunlap and commissioners that the process violated state law.

“Your sending of a group email to the board where you entertained responses also created an unnoticed meeting in violation of the open meetings law.”

Dunlap defended the board’s actions.

He wrote that commissioners had discussed budget priorities earlier this year at a retreat and other meetings, which were public and live streamed on the internet or televised.

He also said that commissioners had met with constituents and heard from the public via emails, phone calls and social media.

“I will challenge your assertion and anyone else’s, that there was some back room deals or that this process has not been transparent,” Dunlap wrote.

In the meeting, Dunlap called the budget process the most transparent the county has ever had.

Other board members suggested the straw vote process was flawed to begin with.

Commissioner Trevor Fuller said the county manager would be best equipped to figure out where reductions are needed after seeing the commissioners’ proposed changes.

“That makes a lot more sense than us individuals having to sort of figure that out,” he said in the meeting.

Commissioner Vilma Leake said the process was an improvement over the way previous budgets have been set.

We don’t have to always do it the same old way, if you do that you get the same old results,” she said.