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Mayor Lyles says controversial new hire won't handle city money. Business Alliance suggests otherwise.

Kimberly Henderson (left) was hired by the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance to “operationalize and directly” support Mayor Vi Lyles' (right) Racial Equity Initiative.
Charlotte Regional Business Alliance/City of Charlotte
Kimberly Henderson (left) was hired by the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance to “operationalize and directly” support Mayor Vi Lyles' (right) Racial Equity Initiative.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said Wednesday that a new person hired by the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance to “operationalize and directly” support her $250 million racial equity initiative won’t be working with city money.

But the alliance’s own news release about Kimberly Henderson’s hiring last week suggests that she will.

The alliance said that Henderson would serve as “executive staff” to a board overseeing an improvement program for Johnson C. Smith University and a board working to close the digital divide and improve infrastructure in so-called “Corridors of Opportunity.”

The city has already pledged $72 million to those two programs.

In an appearance on Charlotte Talks, Lyles said Henderson won’t be working with public money.

“I also want to make the point that there is no city money involved in this around this commitment to the racial equity fund,” Lyles said during an appearance on Charlotte Talks.

She said the city would have a “lane” in some areas, like improving internet connectivity and the “Corridors of Opportunity” program. That appears to be a reference to the two areas where city money would be spent.

But she then returned to the idea of no public money being involved.

“But the money that the alliance is working with and particularly the focus of the alliance — one of their major initiatives is to do reporting on corporate diversity hires and where are we seeing the opportunity for African Americans and other people of color to proceed to success in these businesses,” Lyles said.

Lyles was referring to a part of her initiative that would push local businesses and corporations to make more diverse hires and promotions.

Henderson will be responsible for implementing that program, the alliance said. She will be the executive staff supporting the boards in the other three parts of the equity initiative.

Lyles and the alliance have been at the center of a controversy this week over the alliance’s decision to hire Henderson.

The controversy is over Henderson’s previous job as the director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. WCNC reported that an Ohio state audit said there was “lack of controls” due to unemployment fraud and overpayments during her tenure. And the Ohio Attorney General’s Office’s requested state and local police open a criminal investigation into whether laws were broken.

Lyles told City Council members Monday that she wasn’t involved in hiring Henderson. She repeated that on Charlotte Talks Wednesday.

“They did not request, nor did I interview, help hire anything about this position,” Lyles said.

Lyles announced her $250 million initiative in November, with more than half of the money coming from the public sector. The city has already committed $72 million to the fund. It wants the public sector to raise $100 million overall.

City Council members have said they want oversight of the money earmarked for the equity initiative, and City Manager Marcus Jones has said City Council will still vote on spending it.

But after that, the details are thin.

If the Council votes to transfer the money to the alliance, then the public’s ability to know how it’s being spent is curtailed. Because the alliance is a private organization, it’s not subject to the state’s open meetings and open records laws.

Republican City Council member Tariq Bokhari has criticized Lyles over how she handled the unveiling of the program as well as the alliance’s hiring of Henderson.

He said if Henderson is serving as “executive staff” to two boards receiving city money, then she is involved in deciding how it is spent.

Based on his experience with boards, Bokhari said “the executive staffer in charge of the effort is really the one pulling all the strings.”

Last year, council members decided to fund arts and cultural programs on their own, rather than sending money to the Arts and Science Council.

But the city hired its own staff member to oversee the money.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.