The Charlotte City Council desperately needs a good ol’ fashion come-to-Jesus moment. It’s time to look deep into the mirror and ask themselves, “Is my service being performed for the whole of my constituency or, rather, for the already-advantaged few? What are my priorities? Am I being accountable to those who elected me? Am I responsibly and respectfully carrying out the sacred duties assigned to a person elected by voters to this position of leadership?”

Those questions, asked in light of the ongoing intransigence on the Capital Improvement Plan and the recent eagerness to fork over nearly $144 million for Carolina Panthers stadium upgrades, have clear and obvious answers: In Charlotte, the rich get richer — behind closed doors and on the backs of everyone else.

Openness & accountability

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson’s recent request for city money originally came in at $125 million. Yet, Council has seen fit to give him nearly $19 million more, all while taxpayers have yet had the opportunity to see exactly what their $144 million will be buying. [Ed. Note — After sending our Feb. 15-28 print edition to press, The Charlotte Observer was given the opportunity to see some breakouts of potential renovation costs. You can read that article and see the expected renovation budget via] Council should have demanded: If you are going to ask for that much in taxpayer funds, we will have to show our citizens — the real people from whom our rightful authority derives — how you plan on spending it before we endorse a plan approving the expenditure.

Instead, Council thought it was better to discuss the matter in closed-door meetings, safely tucked away from public scrutiny where, I’m assuming, the brandy was flowing freely and smoke from fancy, imported cigars was lightly swirling around Council members’ heads.

As a community and a city, Charlotte faces a lot of massive problems affecting our current and future growth. But, it is this lack of openness and transparency that must be addressed first. No other challenge in this city can be properly addressed if our elected representatives are not first willing to actually do the work with which citizens have entrusted them in an open, honest, transparent and collaborative manner.

The rich get richer

Though openness and transparency is chief among Charlotte’s challenges, recent events have clearly demonstrated a much larger, more difficult problem: Council members have gravely misplaced their priorities as public servants, all to the continued benefit of millionaires and detriment of average citizens.

In less than a month, Council considered, debated and voted to endorse a business plan giving nearly $144 million to a business worth $1 billion owned by a man with an estimated worth of $500 million — the same business which is able to offer its dozens of players anywhere from one-year to six-year contracts with salaries totaling nearly $680 million.

Now, contrast that with the Council’s months-long stalling on the proposed Capital Improvement Plan, the progressive, forward-thinking strategy first put forward by now-retired City Manager Curt Walton and other city staff. If passed, the plan would have invested money in the city’s future growth and financial well-being by addressing seriously and long-neglected infrastructure needs and other projects.

Walton’s progressive plan had been in the works for months. Council members had seen presentation after presentation and spreadsheet after spreadsheet on the proposed spending. And, without even the slightest forewarning or inkling of trouble, the proposal devolved into silly back-and-forth bickering and was quickly shot down when it came to a vote last summer.

For months now, members of City Council and Mayor Anthony Foxx have been wrangling over the details of the Capital Improvement Plan. In December, they voted to postpone any further discussion on it.

Why does Council find itself so eagerly considering and approving a plan to give $144 million to a business that will be shelling out nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in salaries while at the same time continually stalling on a plan to spend much-needed money on city-wide projects that will benefit the majority of citizens and residents — people who make far, far less each year than the eight-figure salaries most Panthers players are taking home?

From the outside looking in — hell, from any rational perspective — the Council’s quick, efficient and closed-door management of the Panthers’ request when compared to the Council’s slow and dysfunctional management of the Capital Improvement Plan reeks of the absolutely corrupting power of moneyed access and privilege. Are you a millionaire business owner who wants millions in taxpayer dollars for the private use of supporting your $1 billion business? Well, buddy, come on in and sit right down and we’ll take care of you in a jiffy! Yet, if you are Regular Joe and Average Jane who needs better roads and sidewalks or more affordable housing options in a city with sky-rocketing rents and poverty rates, all it seems you’ll hear from the city is, “Eh, take a hike and we’ll deal with you later.”

Setting priorities

It is important for citizens and City Council members alike to seriously question the ways in which this plan to support the Panthers has come about and whether our city’s public servants have the best interest of all their constituents in mind.

While thousands of citizens are living in poverty and as city infrastructure is left neglected, the City Council has done relatively little to begin effectively addressing city-wide challenges and finding solutions that will encourage Charlotte’s growth.

Ultimately, this choice doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. We can support both the Panthers and take steps to ensure all our citizens are being supported. We can encourage the economic stimulus that is a locally-based national sports franchise while at the same time addressing serious economic and infrastructure problems that affect mostly low- and middle-income people.

All it takes is will and a determination by City Council that they will not let the needs of the many go unaddressed while they make plans to benefit the wealthy few on the very backs of those who can least afford it.

Which priorities do our government and our elected leaders find most important? So far, even the most social-justice-minded members of Council seem to favor the needs of the city’s wealthy over those of the average citizen. If Charlotte truly desires change, if it truly desires a city that lifts everyone up, then Council must admit that there is only one obvious answer: No money for millionaires, until the Capital Improvement Plan is passed. : :

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Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.

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