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Council Gives City Manager More Freedom To Spend Without Vote, Public Scrutiny

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Steve Harrison
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The City Council voted Monday to give City Manager Marcus Jones the ability to spend $500,000 on contracts without council approval.

The Charlotte City Council voted 9-2 Monday to allow the city manager to spend up to $500,000 on contracts with no public notice or a vote, a decision that some activists said would further lead to the militarization of the police.

The city’s previous policy was that all contracts greater than $100,000 had to be placed on an agenda, and voted on in public by council members. That cap had been in place since 1995.

But city manager Marcus Jones – who is finishing his second year as manager – supports expanding that cap.

The city said that in fiscal year 2017, there were 226 items submitted for council approval that were for less than $500,000. All but one were approved unanimously. And the city also said its $100,000 cap was one of the most restrictive in the state.

But the change will give the public much less insight into how the city spends tax dollars, including Charlotte Mecklenburg Police. On Monday, council members had a long discussion about CMPD’s request to spend roughly $550,000 on night vision goggles.

In the future, that type of discussion might not happen if the city can get the purchase under $500,000.

Council members LaWana Mayfield and Braxton Winston voted against the higher cap.

Mayfield said that, in the past, council members have asked questions about those contracts before a vote, leading to staff members to make changes. She also said council members pledged for greater transparency in its "Letter to the Community" written after the Keith Scott protests and riots in 2016.

"We wrote a letter to the community," Mayfield said. "That included transparency."

Mayor Vi Lyles, who spearheaded that letter to the community when she was still a council member, supported the $500,000 cap.

She said that anyone can ask to make an appointment with city staff if they have a question about how the city is spending money.

As she spoke, Winston rolled his eyes. He later told his colleagues: "You just don't get it."

Winston said he was OK, in theory, with raising the cap. But he opposed how the city was doing it.

He said some council members have suggested that the manager could provide a list of contracts approved if council members ask for it.

"A list of things that have (approved), that's not a process," Winston said. "How do you ask for something that you don't know is there?"

Council members who supported the higher cap said the manager should be allowed to spend what they said is a small amount of the city's overall budget, which is more than $2 billion.

"There are more productive ways to spend our time," said council member Ed Driggs.

"We must change with the times," said city council member Greg Phipps, noting that the city has grown significantly since the $100,000 cap was approved in the 1990s.

Council members have already allowed the manager to buy police equipment for the 2020 Republican National Convention without a public vote.

Before the vote, council members voted to give Jones a 5 percent raise, making his salary $333,900.

Council members also voted 9-1 to give Jones a 5 percent raise.

In other action, council members also approved the Strategic Energy Action Plan, an aspirational plan designed to ensure that Charlotte achieves sustainable energy goals and greenhouse gas reductions in the coming decades.