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The Charlotte City Council likely violated state law last month when it voted to give the city manager a raise in closed session, legal experts told The Charlotte Observer.
Mayor Vi Lyles announced in the final minutes of an Aug. 28 meeting that the council voted to give City Manager Marcus Jones a 4% pay raise and $15,000 in deferred compensation — bringing his base pay to $451,933 and his total compensation package to $521,662.
The council also approved raises for the city attorney and city clerk.
“Each appointee has demonstrated performance which earns a change in their compensation,” Lyles said more than four hours into the meeting that also featured a marathon discussion of the future of Eastland Yards.
But the council did not vote on the raises in open session at the meeting.
That “was a likely violation” of North Carolina open meeting laws, attorney Amanda Martin told the Observer.
“In my view, they could talk about the merits of the raise in closed session, because that likely involved discussion of personnel matters … But there is nothing in the law that explicitly would authorize a vote on a raise in closed session, and we take the position that only the specifically identified topics/actions can be done in closed session. Everything else must be open,” said Martin, who works with the North Carolina Press Association.
Fellow attorney Mike Tadych, who also works with the press association, said he agreed with Martin’s assessment.
He pointed to state statute G.S .143-318.13, which he said “makes clear that voting in secret is a no-no.”
“Except as provided in this subsection or by joint resolution of the General Assembly, a public body may not vote by secret or written ballot,” the statute reads.
The statute allows for virtual meetings if there’s an option for the public to listen and for bodies to vote by written ballot if the ballots are signed and minutes are released to the public that include the results of the vote.
Lyles did not specify in her comments at the Aug. 28 meeting when the council voted on the raises, though she said they were effective July 1. There was a closed session listed on the agenda for the council’s “action review” session Aug. 28.
Nothing about Jones’ raise was included on the City Council’s Aug. 28 agenda either, though Martin said she didn’t think that omission violated any laws because “there really isn’t anything in the statute that speaks to agendas, as such, and almost any topic can be discussed at regularly scheduled meetings.”
Why wasn’t vote in public?
District 6 Councilman Tariq Bokhari told the Observer he believed an attorney OK’d voting on the matter in closed session if the outcome was announced in public but that he “wasn’t part of the analysis of that at all.”
Councilman Ed Driggs, who represents District 7, told an Observer reporter her questions were best directed to city staff and that while it did “strike him as a bit odd,” he didn’t make much of Lyles announcing the raise at the Aug. 28 meeting without a public vote.
Driggs went on to say that he recalled a vote in open session on raises but couldn’t remember the date of that vote and would find it. No City Council meeting agendas from the months of July and August included any items about a performance review and/or raise for Jones, the city attorney or city clerk.
The council voted publicly at a November meeting on an earlier 14% raise for Jones, the Observer reported previously. That vote was 8-3, with Council members LaWana Mayfield, Renee Johnson and Braxton Winston voting against it.
A spokesman for the City of Charlotte did not respond to multiple questions from the Observer about why Jones’ latest raise wasn’t on the council’s agenda, voted on in open session or whether those moves were in line with policy. The spokesman also did not answer an Observer question about the margin of the closed session vote on the raise.
Lyles and other members of the City Council didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from an Observer reporter.
Mecklenburg County manager raise
The City Council’s handling of Jones’ raise stands in contrast to how a similar move was handled by the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners at its Sept. 6 meeting.
At that meeting, Commissioner Pat Cotham gave a report on County Manager Dena Diorio’s performance in open session before the commission voted on a raise and a cash bonus for Diorio.
Both of the county’s votes were held in open session, and other commissioners as well as Diorio were given the opportunity to speak publicly about the move at the meeting.