A meeting scheduled today between leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Mecklenburg County sparked allegations by Commissioner Bill James that it's a "secret meeting" to plot strategy for a November referendum on a sales tax hike.
School board Vice Chair Tim Morgan and Commissioners' Chair Trevor Fuller say it's simply a session for county officials to brief their CMS counterparts on the plan for a quarter-cent increase that would go toward teacher raises.
Morgan, a Republican, says he and CMS board Chair Mary McCray requested the meeting after commissioners approved the sales tax referendum in May. He said they had been reading about the plan in the newspaper but hadn't gotten a first-hand report. If approved, the hike is expected to raise up to $35 million a year, with 80 percent for CMS salaries and the rest divided among CPCC, the Arts & Science Council and libraries.
A meeting was set to include Morgan, McCray, Fuller, commissioners' Vice Chair Dumont Clarke, County Manager Dena Diorio and Superintendent Heath Morrison.
Morgan said commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, also a Republican, texted him to ask if such a meeting was happening. "I said 'absolutely,' " Morgan said Tuesday. "It's not a secret to our folks."
"Given the subject matter of the meeting, the allocation of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, I had hoped to sit in on this meeting so I could be fully aware of what was being discussed. ... I was quite surprised to learn that I am not allowed to attend the meeting, nor are any other Commissioners allowed to attend," he wrote. Ridenhour asked that the county clerk take minutes for the full board to review.
James, a Republican, took the matter further in an email copied to news media: "This meeting sounds like a secret planning meeting to figure out how to present the sales tax proposal to the media/public without them knowing about the details in advance. If the Democrats want to do that they should just go somewhere else other than the government center to hatch their plans. They certainly shouldn’t involve the County Manager and sup(erintendent)."
"I would point out that government resources of ANY kind can’t be used to promote or support a ballot initiative," James added. "Ultimately, what is the reason for meeting with CMS and the various managers but to coordinate ballot support in violation of state law." He said Morrison and Diorio count as such resources and their participation is "ill-advised and I believe illegal."
Fuller, a Democrat, responded that Ridenhour's message was riddled with inaccuracies. There is no plan to draft a memo, he said.
A note: It's neither uncommon nor illegal for small groups of elected officials to meet to discuss business. However, if a meeting involves a quorum of the board, it becomes subject to the N.C. Open Meetings Law, which requires public notice and an opportunity for the public to attend.
"The meeting is not a secret if you know about it," Dunlap said in a reply to James. "Every one of us has meetings or has had a meeting with folk the (sic) we want at the table, and we didn't open it up to anyone else."
Morgan said his goal is to get information to report back to the full school board. "This is the proper role of leadership of the boards to have this conversation," he said.