Carolina Theatre vote exposes rift on Charlotte City Council

Carolina Theatre vote exposes rift on Charlotte City Council

Carolina Theatre vote exposes rift on Charlotte City Council


by STEVE HARRISON / Charlotte Observer

Posted on December 20, 2012 at 7:45 AM

Updated Thursday, Dec 20 at 10:30 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Shortly before a hotly debated vote Monday on who would be chosen to restore the Carolina Theatre, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx suggested there was too much wheeling and dealing among City Council members jockeying for votes.

During the meeting, Foxx said council members had become “too muscular in pushing for those ideas behind closed doors and not around the dais, and that has to be carefully watched.”

He added: “The city has always done business transparently, above board. ...We have a lot of equity to protect.”

Council members ultimately chose the Foundation for the Carolinas to restore the closed theater on North Tryon Street. The foundation plans to build an office tower in front of the theater, in addition to restoring the building, which has been closed since 1978.

It will buy the theater from the city for $1.

Several council members, however, supported a rival bid from the ARK Group, which developed the N.C. Music Factory uptown. That group offered the city $500,000 for the site and pledged to restore the theater.

An effort to steer the sale to the ARK Group failed by a 6-5 vote. The motion appeared deadlocked 5-5, but council members who supported the foundation called Democrat David Howard to come and attend the meeting and cast the deciding vote. Howard was recovering from jaw surgery.

“I came in because they needed the vote,” Howard said.

Foxx, a Democrat, didn’t take a public position on the theater sale.

Some council members said they didn’t know what Foxx was referring to in his comments before the vote. But some council members themselves say it’s the latest sign that the council has become dysfunctional, even with a 9-2 Democratic majority.

“There were several of us who didn’t understand the nature of the comments,” said Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, a Democrat.

Said Democrat Michael Barnes: “I don’t know where this is coming from. It was bizarre.”

In an interview with the Observer, Foxx declined to elaborate.

“My comments last night were the best reflection of my sentiments at the time,” Foxx said. “I don’t have anything to add to what I said.”

The split between the foundation and the ARK Group was similar to a divide among council members over a nearly $1 billion capital plan that Foxx supports. That plan has been in limbo for six months, with Foxx and council members unable to agree on a plan.

Council members Cannon, Barnes, Beth Pickering, Claire Fallon and Republican Andy Dulin voted for the ARK Group. They also voted against the mayor in supporting a large capital plan.

Howard, Patsy Kinsey, James Mitchell, John Autry, LaWana Mayfield and Republican Warren Cooksey supported the foundation. Of those six votes, Cooksey is the one who is against the capital plan.

Some council members said they believe Foxx was referring to questions raised about whether Howard should have been able to vote. Howard is considered an ally of the mayor.

The Mecklenburg Times newspaper reported that Howard is a board member of the Charlotte Mecklenburg African-American Community Committee, which is affiliated with the Foundation for the Carolinas. In addition, Howard’s employer, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, has been a financial partner with the foundation.

Howard said he had no conflict. He added questions about the propriety of his vote were “tacky.”

“If I have a conflict, I say I have a conflict,” Howard said. “This whole thing has irritated me.”

Howard has recused himself in the past from some votes that impacted the Housing Partnership.

On Tuesday, City Attorney Bob Hagemann sent council members an email saying that Howard had no conflict.

Hagemann wrote: “Since neither the African-American Community Committee, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, nor council member Howard is a party to the Carolina Theatre sales transaction, and since neither the AACC, CMHP, nor (council member) Howard stand to directly or indirectly benefit financially from the transaction, there is no conflict.”

Barnes, an attorney, said he heard a rumor before the vote that he would be supporting the ARK Group because had done legal work for Rick and Noah Lazes, the father-and-son team who run the N.C. Music Factory.

He said that’s not true.

“I have not and don’t do legal work for Rick and Noah,” Barnes said. “I spoke to the city attorney about that.”

Foxx has shown his frustration with council members before publicly.

In June, after council members voted down City Manager Curt Walton’s $926 million capital plan, Foxx said the decision was one of the most “irresponsible” the city has ever made because they had no backup plan.