Procedure over Pride: Two commissioners block Mecklenburg Pride Month proclamation

CHARLOTTE — It all started with an email last Friday. At 2:19 p.m., Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham asked the clerk, Kristine Smith, if anyone put a Pride Month proclamation on the agenda. Nine minutes later, Cotham was told no.

Over the next hour, Cotham and Smith emailed back and forth. Cotham told Smith she had two cosponsors and asked if Smith could use last year’s Pride Month proclamation. Smith said she could but since the proclamation was submitted late, Chairman George Dunlap would have to approve adding the item to the agenda. Smith emailed Cotham asking if Cotham would like to call Dunlap or if she should call him. Cotham asked if Smith could call. An email from Smith to Cotham at 3:27 p.m. said Dunlap declined the request.

“Due to the late time frame, he did not approve adding it to Tuesday’s agenda,” Smith wrote to Cotham.

So Cotham found two cosponsors and tried to get it put on the agenda. The clerk told her she could use last year’s proclamation and the clerk said she would ask Dunlap since it was submitted late and that’s the policy.

According to the Policy of the Mecklenburg County Commissioners, all agenda items have to be submitted to the clerk by 4 p.m. 11 business days prior to the board’s regular meeting. Commissioners can submit items up to seven days prior to the regular business.

If the deadlines aren’t met, an item can’t be added to the agenda without the approval of the chairman, per the policy. County commissioners can also add an item to the agenda if there is unanimous support.

The vote to add items to the agenda usually takes place during the dinner briefing in a small room behind the chamber.

When the gavel was struck Tuesday night, Cotham tried to add the item to the agenda. But her effort was blocked after Dunlap made a motion instead to go into closed session. Commissioners voted 5-4 to do so.

Charlotte Observer Reporter Mary Ramsay and Eyewitness News Government Reporter Joe Bruno waited outside the room until commissioners were finished with closed session. By the time closed session was finished, all of the time allotted for the dinner briefing meeting had surpassed and regular meeting was delayed.

Cotham still tried to make the motion. Dunlap suggested she wait until the main meeting.

“I believe it is an item that deserves to be discussed in public,” Dunlap said.

For the first 25 minutes of their meeting, commissioners debated whether an item should be added to their meeting. Cotham put rainbow sunglasses, raised a rainbow flag and made the motion to add a pride month proclamation to the agenda.

“This city is doing this. We should do our part. We have done it in the past, we should do it again,” Cotham said. “We have more than 100,000 residents in our county who are LGTBQ and they need to know we have their back.”

Most commissioners backed the move, saying they want to show support to the LGBT community. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake invoked her late son.

“I’m the mother of one son and my son suffered in the school system, in this community, because he was gay,” she said. “He died in 1993 of AIDS. I have carried that burden.”

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman called the content of the proclamation “beautiful” and encouraged her colleagues to add the item to the agenda.

“We can unanimously put to put this on the agenda and then we are fully compliant with our rules,” Commissioner Leigh Altman said. “It just comes down to political will. I hope we demonstrate tonight what we have in the past, which is unanimous support for the LGBT community.”

Mecklenburg County Commissioners Susan Rodriguez-McDowell and Arthur Griffin supported adding the item to the agenda but lamented what the process turned into.

“This really puts you in a lose-lose situation,” Griffin said. “To have this level of angst intention around a proclamation.”

“I really resent the idea of this becoming a circus,” Rodriguez-McDowell said. “I think this is unfortunate how this has unfolded.”

Dunlap and District 1 representative Elaine Powell voted no and blocked the item from being put on the agenda. Both said they support the LGBT community and the content of the proclamation but they oppose the proper process not being followed.

“This is not about whether we support it or not,” Chairman Dunlap said. “It is about following rules.”

Powell said she would support Dunlap.

“I feel like the chairman is being villainized and it really troubles me,” Powell said. “He doesn’t deserve this. He was following process.”

Later in the night, LGBT activists and leaders emotionally addressed the commission saying process shouldn’t take precedent over their lives.

“My community will not see your rules as superseding our existence,” Bethany Corrigan said. “The message will be pride month is not important to you.”

“This proclamation may have been a piece of paper to some but it is not to us,” Liz Schob said. “Some of you made a choice that I hope you will think about for a long time because our community will not forget.”

Despite the denial, the commissioners who voted in support of the proclamation signed it and plan to give it to LGBT activists even though it isn’t in effect. Charlotte City Council will vote on a similar proclamation on Monday night.

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