Did City Council’s RNC Discussion Violate Open Meetings Law?

Aug 12, 2019

The city of Charlotte recently released a summary of the City Council’s closed session two weeks ago to discuss the possibility of pulling out of its contract to host the 2020 Republican National Convention.

Charlotte City Council prepares to take a vote on the RNC contract in this 2018 file photo.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE

The summary was pretty skimpy, with no details on who said what.

The summary also reported that council members took a straw vote on whether to ask the city attorney to start the process of changing how the city awards RNC-related contracts.

Last year, council members gave City Manager Marcus Jones the ability to award convention contracts on his own, without them coming before council for a vote. These contracts are for things like police services and equipment, as well as construction-related contracts to get the city-owned Spectrum Center ready for the convention. For the 2012 Democratic National Convention, former City Manager Curt Walton had similar powers.

The problem with that straw vote in closed session is that it likely violated the state’s open meetings laws, according to at least two experts and a reading of the law.

State law says an elected body can meet in closed session “to consult with an attorney employed or retained by the public body in order to preserve the attorney-client privilege between the attorney and the public body, which privilege is hereby acknowledged.”

Two experts in the state’s open meetings law — Frayda Bluestein of the UNC School of Government and N.C. Press Association attorney Amanda Martin — said that provision allows council to discuss the ramifications of breaking the contract in private.

However, the open meetings law continues: “General policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant.”

Both Bluestein and Martin said that the discussion about changing how the city awards convention-related contracts should have been in public. That would have been a “general policy matter.”

The motion to change how the city awards RNC contracts was made by Braxton Winston and seconded by Matt Newton.

It failed 9-2, but there is no record of what each council member said. However, Winston, who has opposed hosting the RNC, said some council members thought he would bog down meetings by debating routine RNC contracts.

“None of those contracts have to come before the City Council, and none of them have to come before the people of Charlotte,” Winston said, explaining the motion.

He also said he thought the discussion about contracts was allowed in closed session.

City Attorney Patrick Baker said he couldn’t comment on the closed session without approval from council.