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Journalists seek sanctions over council meetings
Suit asks $1.4 million in Panthers stadium deal
 
Published Tuesday, April 2, 2013 8:47 am
by Herbert L. White

Four retired Charlotte journalists are taking City Council to court over closed-door meetings related to funding improvements at Bank of America Stadium.

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PHOTO/CALVIN FERGUSON
Former WBTV reporter Ken Koontz (second from left) addresses media Tuesday at a press conference announcing a petition to find Charlotte City Council in contempt of court for violating N.C. open meetings law during deliberations on Bank of America Stadium upgrades.


Attorney Paul Whitfield will file a motion today in Superior Court to ask a judge to hold the city of Charlotte in contempt of court for breaking the N.C. open meetings law in its talks with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. The plaintiffs seek a fine of at least $1.4 million against the city – 1 percent of the $144 million initially sought to fund renovations at the stadium.


The plaintiffs – Ken Koontz, Bruce Bowers, Mike Cozza and Wayne Powers – contend Mayor Anthony Foxx and City Council members violated a permanent injunction in holding closed door deliberations and taking a secret vote to approve doubling the prepared food and beverage tax for the stadium upgrades. The proposal ultimately died for lack of support among N.C. lawmakers, although a compromise bill would allow Charlotte to use existing tax revenue to fund the project.


“A permanent injunction is permanent,” the plaintiffs said in a joint statement. “We contend the city violated Judge Snepp’s injunction and the NC Open Meetings Law with closed discussions and a secret tax vote.  The mayor and city council have grown increasingly arrogant in handling public business behind closed doors. They now seek a major tax hike as if it were some private matter. Our contempt motion is non-partisan. It is not aimed at blocking renovation of the stadium. But it does intend to penalize the city for trampling on the mandate of the open meetings law – to conduct public business in public, for voters to see, hear and understand.”


City council members approached the Panthers about funding stadium upgrades last year in order to keep the franchise in Charlotte long term. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has stipulated the Panthers be sold within two years of his death, which could lead to the new owner moving the franchise out of Charlotte and leaving the privately-owned stadium sitting on publicly-held land.


In the 1970s, Whitfield represented Charlotte journalists in open meeting lawsuits against City Council, Mecklenburg County commissioners, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board, winning all three cases. As a result, Superior Court Judge Frank Snepp placed all three under permanent injunctions. Bowers, Koontz and Cozza – all former WBTV reporters – were plaintiffs in the original lawsuits.

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