After Patrick Cannon’s arrest, city manager says Charlotte isn’t ‘pay to play’

sharrison@charlotteobserver.comMarch 27, 2014 

DONT PANIC_5

Charlotte city manager Ron Carlee speaks at a press conference Thursday afternoon.

JEFF WILLHELM — jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

City and county governments sought to assure the public Thursday that local government is not corrupt and working smoothly, while the Charlotte City Council prepared to name a mayor to replace Patrick Cannon, who resigned Wednesday after his arrest on federal corruption charges.

Cannon told undercover agents he had influence over a number of city and county functions, including planning and zoning; the alcohol licensing unit of the police department; and permitting, according to an affidavit.

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said he met with city executives Thursday morning, including those in the planning and zoning departments. He said they told him the city wasn’t a “pay-to-play environment” and Carlee said Charlotte is “doing things right.”

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police spokesman declined to let the Observer interview the head of the department’s ABC unit, which Cannon said he had sway over in helping businesses get liquor licenses.

But in an emailed response, a city spokeswoman wrote that CMPD follows state guidelines and weighs public safety and community impact when completing its opinion forms.

The FBI said Cannon accepted $48,000 in cash and gifts, including $20,000 he received in a briefcase in the mayor’s office in February. The affidavit said Cannon was seeking a $1.25 million payoff to help advance a mixed-use development that would be built along either the city’s streetcar line or Blue Line Extension, which are under construction.

In a news conference Thursday, Carlee tried to downplay Cannon’s ability to corrupt city government, saying much of the mayor’s job is ceremonial and that there are enough checks and balances to limit one person’s power.

Carlee said Cannon’s arrest wouldn’t impact the city’s quest to secure federal funding to build a streetcar or keep control of the airport.

“(The mayor) doesn’t have operational responsibility for the airport or transit,” Carlee said. “It can’t be done by the mayor, it’s done by the council. The mayor is an important position, has a bully pulpit, but he doesn’t have operational control.”

The City Council called a meeting for Monday to pick a new mayor. Candidates could be current council members such as Patsy Kinsey, Michael Barnes, David Howard and Vi Lyles. State Sen. Dan Clodfelter said Thursday he would be interested in the job.

During the undercover operation, Cannon didn’t talk about his ability to set the city on new, bold policy directions, according to the affidavit. Instead he claimed he could help smooth over potential problems the purported developers might have over mundane issues: building permits; getting zoning approval; making sure a proposed development would be received favorably by city staff.

At one point, he allegedly told an undercover agent he could leave his office at E-Z Parking and drive to the Government Center to advance a project.

“And I end up having to get in my car or go to the Government Center, I get in my car and go on down to the Inspections building and I talk to the supervisor, ‘I gotta get you to open this today,’ ” Cannon said, according to the affidavit.

In fact, it’s common for elected officials to call and prod staff members to complete a project faster, such as filling potholes or fixing a drainage problem.

The city’s zoning process has several steps that would make it difficult for one person to advance a project, Carlee said.

It’s possible Cannon could have leaned on a staff member to give a rezoning a favorable recommendation. Such a recommendation can influence how the City Council ultimately votes on a project.

Carlee noted that city staff members discuss a rezoning as a team. And he said a volunteer board – the planning commission – will vote on a rezoning after a public hearing.

The mayor makes appointments to that commission.

Cannon also told the undercover agent that he needed to meet a member of Carlee’s executive team. The executive wasn’t mentioned by name in the affidavit, but the description given resembled Debra Campbell, the city’s longtime planning director.

“You’ve gotta have (him/her),” Cannon said, according to the affidavit. “And, uh, I’ll need to, uh, just kind of make sure I’m positioning (him/her) in case you need different things.”

Campbell released a statement Thursday that said she has “always demonstrated the highest level of professionalism and integrity ... The values I hold for myself and my department are honesty, impeccable character and integrity. I expect my staff to adhere to these values no matter who the customer is.”

It’s possible Cannon was exaggerating his influence among city staff members.

Carlee said he wasn’t aware of any city staff members who had received a subpoena in the investigation. He said he had spoken with the U.S. Attorney’s Office numerous times since Cannon’s arrest, and that he was asked not to discuss details that could compromise the federal government’s investigation.

Cannon also stressed to the undercover agents that he could help them secure building permits, which can be a source of frustration for people seeking to open a business or renovate an existing one.

City, county roles

Permitting is split between city and county government.

County inspectors are responsible for enforcing construction standards; city inspectors enforce local regulations for items such as health and sanitation, and zoning and land-use regulations.

County Manager Dena Diorio said her staff would cooperate with any investigation.

“We are reviewing the documents and criminal complaint, and know there are references by Cannon regarding Mecklenburg County’s Code Enforcement process,” she said.

In the past year, county commissioners have heard complaints about county inspections that include poor customer service, inefficiencies and permits costing too much.

“But never, ever, did I hear complaints about corruption,” said commissioner Pat Cotham, who as board chairwoman last year focused on the issue and made an effort to talk to developers and people in the real estate community.

Current commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller said county staff have laid out a detailed plan to review code enforcement and inspections and will begin making recommendations on how to improve them likely next summer.

“We’ll continue our audit of the process and at the end of audit, we’ll be discussing what kind of policy changes we need to make,” Fuller said.

Commissioner Bill James said it might be a good idea to review all departments in light of what has surfaced in the Cannon investigation.

Yet, he too, has heard no complaints about corruption in county inspections. He said the board established an oversight of that department and others years ago with tougher audits and a stricter ethics policy.

The board requires that reports from internal audits of departments are sent to an audit review committee of four commissioners – instead of the county manager.

“I do think the city wouldn’t be having these issues if they had a little more oversight,” James said. “We learned the hard way that if department heads report to management and internal auditors report to management – and not the commission – we lose an oversight link.”

Gov. Pat McCrory said Thursday that he is now focused on working with Charlotte officials to rebuild trust in the city after its mayor was arrested on public corruption charges.

Speaking at a ribbon-cutting for insurance giant MetLife’s new office building in Charlotte, McCrory said the personal wound from reading the affidavit was still fresh, but that he was committed to restoring the city’s reputation.

“We’re going to get through this as a state and a city,” McCrory said. “We’re going to move forward and not let this tragic situation impact the long-term viability of this great city and this great state.” Andrew Dunn and David Perlmutt contributed

Harrison: 704-358-5160

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