The suddenly secretive Mecklenburg budget process

George Dunlap talks about the priorities of county commission

Dunlap says they'll focus on revaluation and as funders projects that help improve upward mobility in Mecklenburg County.
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Dunlap says they'll focus on revaluation and as funders projects that help improve upward mobility in Mecklenburg County.

George Dunlap has shown some strong managerial skills recently. As first-year chair of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, he’s navigated an often rocky budget process by getting in front of disagreements and building consensus. He’s communicated individually with commissioners. He’s listened to their ideas and concerns. He’s led.

But the leader of the board is also accountable to the people of Mecklenburg County, and this month Dunlap made a mistake. In advance of an annual budget straw vote in which commissioners debate spending priorities, Dunlap compiled a list of budget amendments behind the scenes. Then, in a group email to commissioners, he said he would call for a vote on the recommended changes at the meeting. That vote, however, wouldn’t be accompanied by the discussion the public usually hears.

“Having listened to each of you, the motion should pass unanimously,” Dunlap said in a May 22 email, which was sent from his personal account. “When this motion passes, we can adjourn the meeting.”

That group email discussion was likely a violation of North Carolina’s open meetings law, but Dunlap has been unrepentant. When commissioner Pat Cotham raised concerns about transparency in an email to the board, Dunlap lashed out at her and noted that the public had access to much of the budget process, including a retreat and other meetings that have been live-streamed. In Tuesday’s meeting, Dunlap called the process the most transparent the county has ever had.

It’s true that the public has had the opportunity to engage in most of the budget process. But mostly transparent is not transparent. Dunlap should know this. The rest of the board, including its new members, also should know.

There’s little likelihood of consequence for Dunlap and the board, even with the potential open meetings law violation. A citizen could seek a court order to get the board’s action invalidated, but that’s impractical and very unlikely. So why does the lack of transparency matter? As Cotham explained in an email to the board, she and the public should get to hear what’s behind items commissioners want in the budget. “Making our case as to why we choose to pay or not pay for things is important,” she said. That’s especially true this year, given that the proposed Mecklenburg budget could result in a tax hike for most county property owners.

Even after transparency issues were raised, however, commissioners voted Tuesday for the changes agreed upon before the straw vote meeting, with only Cotham dissenting.

Dunlap should be applauded for trying to make a hard budget process easier, especially on a board with a history of dysfunction. But the public deserves a clearer window into that process, regardless of whether it’s contentious or not, and citizens should have the comfort that nothing has been hidden from them. That didn’t happen this time, and when called out on it, commissioners appeared to collectively shrug. That might be good for harmony, but it’s bad for good government.