Commissioner Cotham Says County Chair Not 'Transparent' During Budget Talks

May 28, 2019

Last week, Mecklenburg Commissioner George Dunlap sent his colleagues an email about Tuesday's budget straw vote meeting.

He said he had spoken to each commissioner, and had worked out a handful of changes to the budget that he thought would satisfy the board overall. The biggest change was adding $3.1 million to the county's Park and Recreation budget, including $2 million to buy land.

"Below is the proposed motion that will accomplish the changes that you have requested," he wrote in an email. "Having listented to each of you, the motion should pass unanimously."

Commissioner Pat Cotham objected, telling Dunlap in an email that she believed he violated the state's open meetings law by ironing out a budget compromise without public input.

"I responded to him that I was very worried how this would look, and it wasn't very transparent," Cotham said. "And I used words like, this is going to look like a backroom deal."

The budget changes were approved - with little discussion - in a meeting that had been publicized. It was also open to the public.

Dunlap defended his conversatiosn with commissioners.

"There were never any secret meetings, " Dunlap said. "She simply chose not to participate. And that's on her. It's unfortunate. Some of her colleagues invited her to have lunch to discuss the budget, and she chose not to."

The controversy was first reported by The Charlotte Observer.

During Tuesday's meeting, county attorney Tyrone Wade said the email exchanges did not violate the state's open meetings law. Other commissioners defended their discussions, like former chair Trevor Fuller.

"I don't believe I was part of a secret agreement," he said. "I know I wasn't part of a secret agreement. So if y'all came to an agreement without me, that's on you."

Under state law, elected officials are allowed to discuss business with other individuals or in small groups. Emails to an entire elected board are allowed, but not back-and-forth discussions about policy.

In the emails in question, most of the back-and-forth emails were between Cotham and Dunlap. There was one exchange between Commissioner Elaine Powell and Dunlap.

Amanda Martin, an attorney for the NC Press Association, said there isn't any "well-developed body of law" on issues about whether how many group emails would constitute a meeting that should be open to the public.

The county is scheduled to take its final budget vote on June 4.