Lawyer taking Charlotte to court over Panthers stadium dealing

A view from the upper reaches of the Bank of America stadium with the Charlotte skyline in the background. The stadium was built entirely with the money paid for Permanent Seat Licenses (PSLs) in the first years of the Panthers' NFL franchise. GARY O'BRIEN - gobrien@charlotteobserver.com

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by TONY BURBECK / NBC Charlotte

Bio | Email | Follow: @TonyWCNC

WCNC.com

Posted on April 2, 2013 at 11:50 AM

Updated Tuesday, Apr 2 at 6:24 PM

A contempt of court motion filed Tuesday alleges the Charlotte city leaders including Mayor Anthony Foxx and city council members violated state law and disobeyed a judge's order from decades ago when they agreed in private to give the Carolina Panthers millions of dollars for renovations through an increase in the food and beverage tax.

The motion seeks $1.4 million dollar fine, or one percent of the money agreed upon for the Panthers.

The plaintiffs, which includes four longtime local journalists, allege the city violated state open meetings law by having at least two closed-door meetings about raising taxes to help the Panthers with stadium upgrades.

"We know that two meetings have been held and called, closed meetings, but we don't know how many other meetings there are or might have been," said attorney Paul Whitfield.

Plaintiff Mike Cozza says the amount of money at stake, plus discussions that the increase in the food and beverage tax would be used to help renovate existing or build new venues without the public's knowledge makes the actions egregious.

"To take it behind closed doors, to have a massive tax increase that would total $1 billion over 30 years is way beyond the pall of what's allowed under open meetings law," said plaintiff Mike Cozza.  "You can't do that in secret.  They took a secret vote with guards at the door."

"This is indication of a paradigm, a secrecy that has been operating in this building through the city council and county commission for as long as I've lived here," said plaintiff Wayne Powers.

"I'd say arrogance," said plaintiff Ken Koontz. "They should be releasing all of those minutes, unedited, all of that should be made available, and tapes."

City leaders are allowed to meet in closed session about economic development and incentives.

"That's what the City Council has done in an effort to ensure that the Carolina Panthers remain in Charlotte after Mr. Richardson no longer owns the team," said City Attorney Robert Hagemann.  "The City Council then released information about the closed session beyond what is required by law."

The plaintiffs say coming up with money for the Panthers plus other projects with a tax hike doesn't meet the economic development exemption because the Panthers are already here and want to renovate, not relocate.

Whitfield has fought this battle before against Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and CMS and won all three lawsuits in the 1970's.

A judge placed all three under permanent injunctions against violating the state open meetings law again.

"The heads of our local government subdivisions probably don't think the statute still applies," Whitfield said.

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