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County Pledges Transparency In ASC. Is That Possible?

WFAE/Steve Harrison
Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio says the new Arts and Science Council would be transparent. FILE PHOTO

Mecklenburg County manager Dena Diorio has a buzzword when touting the quarter-cent sales tax: Transparency.

In a recent meetings, Diorio has said - numerous times - the county will be "transparent and accountable" to the public about how money is spent. 

Last week, Commissioners voted 7-2 for a resolution that sets guidelines for how the county and a revamped Arts and Science Council would spend the tax money.

And Commission Chair George Dunlap talked about transparency. He read a resolution that said that "transparency" is defined as "funding decisions based on sound processes, data driven decision making, and a separation between programming and grant-making."

If the tax passes, the ASC would stop private fundraising. It would go from an organization that receives most of its money from private donors, to one that funded entirely from the sales tax.

But the organization would remain a nonprofit. That means it wouldn’t be subject to the state’s open meetings and records laws.

The public would not know how much staff members spent on travel, for instance. It would not be able to read emails from organizations lobbying it for grant money – or from residents complaining that the organization might be favoring one arts group over another.

Former Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, who is leading a campaign against the tax, says that’s a problem.

Credit Mecklenburg County
Matthew Ridenhour

"We just keep hearing all of these questions about where those dollars will ultimately go besides the nebulous Arts and Science council," he said. "So I think that’s the key part of transparency that concerns people."

If the tax is approved, the county would turn over $22.5 million a year to the ASC, which would then decide how to spend it.

Another $17 million would go to parks and greenways, and $8 million to education. Diorio said the parks and schools money would be placed into special accounts so the public would make sure it wasn’t replacing existing dollars.

Diorio’s vision for the ASC would require it to file an annual report to the county about how it hass spent the tax money, in addition to its federal tax disclosure.

And the board would have more elected officials from the city and county.

Earlier this year, Diorio said one possibility would be for the ASC to absorbed by county government, becoming a true public organization.

"We didn't ever really seriously consider that," Diorio said. "And there were a few main reasons. One is that the ASC actually has a very strong brand in the community. And we didn't want to lose that."

Another reason, she said, is politics.

"The grant-making portion of the work that they'll be doing will be outside county government, which really does take away some of the political influence that can happen when you're granting money."

The ASC president, Jeep Bryant, started in July – after Diorio decided to keep the organization a nonprofit. He said there will be more interaction with the public than in the past.

"There’s also the expectation that the contract with the county will be reached in a public hearing process, and that the ASC will be making regular reporting, both to the public and to the county commission board," Bryant said.

Commissioner Susan Harden says those officials will make sure the ASC is transparent, even if it’s not legally bound to be.

"I’m not at all worried," she said. "I think we were really clear that the new board would be governed by the values of accountability, transparency - that it would be citizen-led. That  there be broad citizen participation."

Last month, WFAE asked the ASC for emails and text messages from board members related to the tax.

The organization said it didn’t have their email addresses, and said it couldn’t produce them.

A statement from the ASC this week said it hasn’t had any discussions about allowing the public to inspect its records if the tax passes.

Democratic political consultant Sam Spencer opposes the tax.

"One of the problems with this process is that we don’t know where the allotments came from, we don’t know how it came to be," he said. "And it was absolutely, positively without public input."

Commissioner Vilma Leake voted for the resolution. But she’s concerned about how much of the tax money would go to ASC staff.

"You said who can serve," Leake said during a recent meeting. "But how many presidents, vice presidents…staff people will be working for the arts and science council. Who will be on payroll? We need to know that."

Bryant, the ASC’s president, says he expects the ASC’s staff of 35 people to get a little smaller if the tax passes, since it won’t be fundraising.

Bryant has a salary of $205,000 a year, and is eligible for a $25,000 bonus. 

That’s actually less than the leaders of other Charlotte nonprofits. In 2017, Michael Smith of Center City Partners made more than $425,000, according to the organization’s tax form.

Center City Partners is also a nonprofit, and it’s primarily funded by property taxes levied in uptown. Like the ASC, it’s not subject to the state’s open meetings laws.

But other organizations that receive special sales tax revenue are public. 

County residents pay a half-cent sales tax for transit. That money goes to the Charlotte Area Transit System, which is part of the city of Charlotte.

There are also tourism taxes on hotel rooms and restaurant and bar tabs. That money goes to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, which is also a public organization.

Last month, county commissioners Trevor Fuller and Leake said they wanted the ASC to make recommendations over arts funding – and then the county would have final say. They have since backed away from that idea.

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.