Meck County Commission chairman under fire for discussing budget through email

MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — A fellow commissioner is raising concerns about transparency after she said the Mecklenburg County Commission's chairman broke the law.

Commissioner Pat Cotham said she believes Chairman George Dunlap violated open meeting laws when he emailed all the commissioners last Wednesday with his proposed budget adjustments, itemized with dollar amounts.

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In the email from his personal account, Dunlap claimed a motion to pass the changes should be unanimous and he solicited board feedback. Multiple commissioners responded to Dunlap’s email. Commissioner Susan Harden emailed the entire board of commissioners to say she supported Dunlap’s motion. Vice Chair Elaine Powell expressed concern over a new real estate position being eliminated.

Emails obtained by Channel 9 show, Cotham responded to Dunlap’s email with concerns about transparency.

“I think many of our constituents will feel slighted. I think media will ask where the transparency is,” Cotham wrote. “I think the people deserve better. I worry they will call it 'a backroom deal.'”

(Read Dunlap's email below)

Dunlap responded to Cotham’s complaints by saying the budget process has been transparent.

“I will challenge your assertion and anyone else’s, that there was some backroom deals or that this process has not been transparent,” Dunlap said. “Each time that each one of us has spoken about the budget in a televised meeting or shared our concerns about the budget, we have been transparent.”

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Cotham responded to Dunlap’s email by saying she feared he broke open meetings laws.

“Your sending of a group email to the board where you entertained responses also created an unnoticed public meeting in violation of the open meetings law,” she said.

Two experts contacted by Channel 9 agree with Cotham’s assessment.

Brooks Fuller, executive director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, said the county chairman likely violated the state’s open meetings law because it is a communication to a majority of a public body for the purposes of deliberations.

“It does not matter that the emails are public record or that there is no specific call for a vote or other action,” Fuller said. “It creates an invitation to conduct public business in private without notice and an opportunity for community participation.”

Jonathan Jones, a North Carolina attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues, said in his view, it was a violation of the open meetings law.

“The definition of an official meeting includes 'simultaneous communication' of a majority of the body through telephone or other electronic means,” Jones said. “I believe that occurs when there is an email conversation between members of a public body about the public's business.”

County Attorney Tyrone Wade told county commissioners during their budget meeting Tuesday that in his view, there was no violation.

“Conversation standing alone would not constitute an official meeting,” Wade said.

County commissioners took a straw vote Tuesday morning on the fiscal year 2020 budget. All but Cotham voted in favor of the budget, including Dunlap’s proposed changes.

"Although I support a lot of things in the budget, I can't support a process that isn't transparent from beginning to end," said Cotham. “I can’t be apart of this. Integrity is way too important and transparency.”

Dunlap defended himself saying there were multiple conversations between commissioners and at no point were any laws broken. Dunlap called Cotham disgruntled and accused her of hijacking the process.

"There were all kinds of discussions to determine what we were going to do as it relates to the budget, and ultimately what came out was what was most important for this community," said Dunlap. “At no time did we do anything illegal, at no time did we do anything inappropriate.”

Dunlap’s proposal slashed new positions in the county. County commissioners eliminated two IT positions, an HR consultant, an environmental health specialist, a medical assistant, a real estate coordinator, a deputy tax collector and a senior assistant to the county manager. The funding freed up will provide $2 million for land acquisition and $1 million for park operations.

If the court finds the county violated open meeting laws, it could reverse any decisions from the meeting or issue an injuction.

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