Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why were commissioners kept in the dark on MetLife?

Seems like a lot of public officials knew MetLife was being wooed to North Carolina. Wake County commissioners learned back in December, according to an Observer report Tuesday. Charlotte city councilman Andy Dulin knew sometime before the council approved the incentives in a closed door session that likely happened earlier this month.

Yet Mecklenburg County commissioners didn't find out about MetLife's impending relocation until March 5, and less than a half-hour before they had to vote on sealing the deal by offering $1.9 million in business incentives to the company. Commission chair Pat Cotham said the board had about 15 minutes to offer a yay or nay on the incentives. That's not quite the kind of deliberate reflection we'd prefer our representatives have.

So what happened? Charlotte Chamber official Natalie English tells the Observer that the chamber signed a non-disclosure agreement with MetLife that prevented it from letting commissioners know. But other Charlotte officials were in on the secret, and MetLife apparently didn't need such assurances from the Wake chamber.

Here's an alternative theory: Bill James.

It's no secret that the Distict 6 commissioner considers very few things a secret. James is a prolific provider of emails and documents concerning county issues, county business, and county spats. It's earned him a reputation in the corridors of the Government Center and throughout Mecklenburg. Primary opponent Ed Driggs even mentioned it during his unsuccessful attempt to unseat James last year.

You might guess that the media have a different perspective. Readers of the O know that we've regularly been critical of James' public homophobia and inflammatory comments regarding ethnicity. But James also understands what too few public officials get - that although they run the government, they don't own it. The public does, and the public is entitled to access to the meetings and public records that show us what our government is doing.

That's why we applauded James a year ago during Sunshine Week, which also happens to be this week.

Does James think he's at least partly responsible for the MetLife shush? He's not sure, but "probably," he thinks. In an email today, he says: "I guess it would be an honor of a sort to claim credit for scaring the Chamber so much that they refused to tell the other Commissioners."

That doesn't necessarily mean he would've blabbed the MetLife news, had he known. "I doubt it, but the issue for me is whether the disclosure of specific confidential information is necessary for efficient and good government," he says. "Admittedly, it is a judgment call, and I am the one that makes the call."

Cotham, meanwhile, wants the board's economic development committee, which was revived this year, to review future requests for incentives before making a recommendation to the full board. MetLife is likely a good deal for Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, but not all such incentives will be. Our representatives should have the time they need to contemplate those decisions. Governing shouldn't be a pop quiz.  

Peter St. Onge


Wiley Coyote said...

If Jen-Jen and Helms were still running the show, they would be giving away the farm to get any company or anything here (Whitewater Center ring a bell?).

From the Rhinotimes, Jan 2008:

...Before the votes were taken Commissioners Vice Chairman Parks Helms, a Democrat and one of the baseball deal's chief cheerleaders, thanked James and Bishop for keeping quiet and not restating their stances on the land and baseball brouhaha.

"This is the culmination of months and years of work by dedicated professionals and skilled politicians," Helms said. "It's more than about baseball; it puts the finishing touches on uptown Charlotte."

That is, of course, in addition to the arena, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the Wachovia Tower arts museums, the new Afro-American Cultural Center and Bank of America stadium, all of which also, at one point or another, laid claim to putting the finishing touches on uptown.

Jobs are jobs, right? No matter how you get'em?

Nothing to see...move along.

blockhead said...

We're debating the wrong issue here. It's not whether the commissioners should have known earlier. It is whether they should have bowed to extortion by a large, rich corporation, of taxpayers' money for their own coffers. The Observer and other media should be railing at the whole concept of incentives, not the minutia of how they're awarded. It is beyond time for a federal law that treats incentive payments as what they are - bribes. That's the only way we'll ever end what has become the ultimate hypocrisy of large corporations that demand fewer regulations and less "interference" by government - ah, the vaunted free-enterprise system! - from constantly feeding at the public trough. And man, as we used to say in the country, they've got all four feet in the trough.

The Observer Editorial Board said...


Thanks. We did write on that issue in an editorial Sunday. We don't think incentives are great policy. At the least, they should protect the public.

Here's the link:




Alannc44 said...

Wrong link

The Observer Editorial Board said...


It's working for me as a copy and paste in Firefox and IE. If you're getting extra text beyond "html" when you paste - delete that.


Anonymous said...

You cant dangle an incentive to MetLife and then pull it off the table once you think you've got a Yes. Either offer incentives or dont but you dont get it both ways.

Unless county commissioners are implying the $1.9m incentive obligation was all news to them on the day of the vote??

This is an example why I hope we create a dedicated airport authority run by local business leaders and keep politics out of business.

Garth Vader said...

+1 to blockhead

The meaning of the word "regulate" as it relates to the "regulate commerce among the several states" clause of the Constitution is to "make consistent". The intent was to prohibit one state from applying taxes to goods imported from another state.

Clearly these incentives/bribes/slush funds are a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Framers' intent to prevent states from engaging in bidding wars with the citizens' money. A tax abatement or incentive for one company is in practice a tax increase on other companies.