Department responds to
cap: Open-air Drug deals like this may be easier to catch now
By Tara Servatius
Seven additional police officers are now patrolling the streets of the David 2 police district. As reported in Creative Loafing recently, increasing complaints over the past month by more than a dozen African-American inner city residents have claimed that their neighborhoods didn't have enough police officers. In addition, police officers complained they didn't feel safe making traffic stops in David 2 because there wasn't enough back-up. Now, the officers have finally been added. Exactly who made the decision to add the officers is unclear. Police Chief Stephens, who met with neighborhood residents two weeks ago in an attempt to resolve the problem, would not commit to adding additional officers to the David 2 police service district at the time, but wanted to shift the responsibilities of three officers who already worked there to a more community-oriented policing approach.
The controversy started last year, when the department increased the size of the inner-city David 2 police district by more than a third, adding some of the city's roughest neighborhoods, like Belvedere Homes, to the area officers must cover. The department did not increase the number of officers -- 63 at the time -- who served the area.
Then, when a class of new police recruits graduated recently, none were allocated to David 2, although new recruits were sent to the largely suburban, affluent South Charlotte Baker 2 police district, which decreased in size during last year's redistricting from 70.38 square miles to 61.87, but jumped from 64 officers to 83. Each of the department's 12 service districts are currently understaffed, according to a manpower modeling program in use by the police department.
After a city public safety meeting on Thursday, Stephens told Creative Loafing he didn't know how many officers had been added to the service district. The chief and council members who sit on the committee discussed the recent controversy over how officers are distributed across the county and how they police.
Staffing levels is and always will be an issue in policing, said Stephens.
But ironically enough, in over an hour's worth of discussion which centered around Stephens' community policing plans, Stephens never specifically addressed the issue of officer allocation to low-and-moderate income inner city areas versus suburban areas when police redistricted last year -- the heart of the controversy over redistricting.
Public safety committee members were not informed that officers had been added to David 2, although a sharp eye would have caught a slight difference in the number of police officers assigned to David 2 on a handout from the police department. It lists a 68 for the number of officers currently serving in David 2, five more officers than department officials said were working there three weeks ago.
On Monday, David Service Area Captain Tim Danchess verified that the seven officers had been added. Danchess said an eighth officer who is currently working as a school resource officer will be added when school is out.
But regardless of who made the decision to add the officers -- or responded to media attention and pressure from African-American community leaders -- officers who patrol the streets of David 2 said the addition of more police has made a difference -- and is allowing some officers to resume their community policing work. Community policing, an enforcement strategy that goes by several names, is a popular concept aimed at prevention, rather than response to calls for service.
Area officers and residents told Stephens that the dearth of police officers has taken away from community policing, and that the drug dealers and prostitutes who once overran the neighborhood were beginning to return.
There is a definite short-term effect, said one David 2 officer. We are not all having to answer as many calls for service right now.Local Government Finds Free Lunch (and Dinner and Breakfast)Catering bills for current year top $300K -- so farBy Tricia Childress
Whoever said there's no such thing as a free lunch, doesn't know Charlotte Mecklenburg government very well. Not only are there free lunches, but dinner and breakfast, too. In fact, the combined total of what the city, county, and Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools spent on catering from the beginning of the current fiscal year, July 1, 2000, until a few weeks ago was $309,143.83. Keep in mind that this is the minimum amount, the amount that has already been spent to date in this fiscal year. Arriving at the actual total is more difficult since catering is not a line item in the budget.
The amount spent on catering generally falls into two categories: travel, and conferences-and-meetings. However, catering may also be included in projects, such as building and parks openings. The $309,000 figure is the amount the city, county, and CMS has already paid this year to only seven caterers. However, I've spoken to other caterers who said they have also catered for the city, but their names did not appear in the information provided by the city.
Precise information about this particular use of our tax dollars has been difficult to obtain. Why? To backtrack a bit, fragments of dollar amounts spent by the city on catering came to my attention while doing research on another article. Julie Hill, Director of Corporate Communications for the City of Charlotte, was slow in responding to questions about city council meetings' catering expenses.
Finally, and after piquing my interest, she reported the City Manager/City Council is spending approximately $31,000 this year on catering which includes Council Dinner Meetings, Agenda Briefing Luncheons, Council Committee Meetings, various district meetings, and the Mayor's Business Breakfast. It should be noted that free dinners are provided to the local media, including some who write for Creative Loafing, at some governmental meetings, including City Council meetings.
However, that $31,000 is only one slice of the local government catering pie. As of April 12, 2001, the year to date total of what the city has paid to seven caterers is $209,705.68. Specifically, a company called Creative Catering received $150,756; Waiters Choice received $26,812; Shomars (which has a restaurant in the building) received 25,816; Something Classic received $2,692; Reid's Fine Foods received $2,576; La-Tea-Da (sic) received $687; and Arthur's received $367.
As reported earlier, Mecklenburg County paid $19,000 to Creative Catering for catering services for the 50 meetings of the Mecklenburg County Commissioners last year. From July 1, 2000 until April 15, 2001, Mecklenburg County has spent $99,438 on five caterers: Creative Catering $73,424; Showmars $11,837; Waiter's Choice Catering 8,283; Something Classic Catering $3,432; and La-Tea-Da's (sic) $2,461.
The Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools reported that they spent $16,067.55 on catering fiscal year to date and that 100 percent of that was paid to Creative Catering.
Creative Catering, a local company located at 9714 Spring Park Drive, has received at least $240,247.29 from the city, county, and CMS since July 1, 2000. Interestingly, many in the local food community, by that I mean other caterers, restaurateurs and chefs, have never heard of Creative Catering. Corey McFarland, the owner of Creative Catering, stated he won the bid for this work and would not discuss how much he charged the city, county, or CMS. However, the city, county, and CMS have all stated that Creative Catering did not win a bid since catering does not require a bid. Usually, items which cost over $100,000 have formal Request For Proposals issued. Since the $309,000 is not a one-time number, but rather a sum, it does not require a bid.
Last year, calendar year 2000, Mecklenburg County paid Creative Catering $85,174. City PR director Hill said the city paid Creative Catering $61,799 during Fiscal Year 1999-2000, but weeks later revised that number by stating, The real figure is probably double that. By press time, Hill had not provided an exact number.
The catering picture is not a clear one. Since catering isn't a line item in the budget and departments are free to use any caterer, I've been told the only way to determine who is catering and how much they are paid is to submit the names of all caterers and find out how much each was paid. There are approximately 170 caterers listed in the local BellSouth Yellow Pages.
Should catering services for local government agencies and legislative boards have to go through a public bid process? Should all catering companies have equal access to the city and county government offices? Should there be policies regulating the use of caterers by city and county governments? Are the members of Charlotte City Council aware how much has been spent this year on catering?
When asked, councilman Mike Castano responded, No. This is the first I have heard that figure. If it's that much money, it should be a bid.
Another councilman, Joe White, responded, With as much food as I see served in the government center, it's not surprising. White explained that council meetings are held during the dinner hours and he rarely had the luxury to eat at home. However, he did suggest that it might be worthwhile to question the process.
Councilman Rod Autrey commented, It is a lot of money and I would just say if we are not bidding it, we should be bidding it. We need to determine what the policy is and what the process is to make sure we get a good product at a fair price.
Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess's first reaction was surprise. She then said, There is a lot of food being consumed in that building (city/county office building). The city council only meets one day a week. I'll find out where that money is going.
Burgess also suggested the city government look into using the Community Culinary School of Charlotte, a private not for profit organization that provides training and job placement in the food service industry for people who are chronically unemployed or underemployed.
According to city policy, the city manager has authority to approve contracts up to $100,000 without council approval. But since the city's total catering bill is made up of separate, smaller contracts spread among many city departments, City Attorney Mac McCarley said the policy would not apply to the individual contracts, which are all under $100,000.
McCarley said that in cases like this, the city may use an informal bid process where city departments work from a standard list of vendors that are pre-qualified.
We follow whatever rules apply, said McCarley.
How does a local catering company get on a list of qualified vendors? Catering services are not centralized. The decision is left to the discretion of each department and word of mouth is most often suggested as the way caterers are selected. Yet, the city/county holds seminars to inform small business owners, especially minority and female-owned companies, how to get business from the city. Catering is specifically mentioned on their website.
The obvious question, of course, is what are the city and county doing spending our tax money on that much food? The $309,000 spent in nine-and-a-half months breaks down (using an average 23-working-day month) to $1,414 per day to feed paid government employees, elected officials, and their guests. And remember, this is the minimum amount we know has been paid to caterers year to date.
That amount -- $309,000 -- means a lot of free food. That's about 700 chicken sandwiches from Price's Chicken Coop or 975 hot dogs from Green's Lunch per day. Another way to look at it is that the $1,414 daily rate is about the amount of annual city/county tax paid by a family living in a $118,000 house. And that's just one day.
These questions need to be answered: What is the total amount spent by the city, county, and CMS annually on catering? Which companies are catering? Why isn't catering a line item? Should catering be publicly bid so all local caterers have a fair chance? Is it necessary for Charlotte Mecklenburg taxpayers to be footing this bill?
On the city county website, the council asks staff to bring back information about various ways for controlling expenditures. Well, I'm not staff, I'm just a food writer, but may I suggest one idea that would save taxpayers $309,000 right now?
No Lights, No Siren? No ProblemGovernmental immunity is one of four defenses city attorneys choose in Darwin lawsuit.By Tara Servatius
Among other things, the Darwin family wants the City of Charlotte to pay for Geoffrey Darwin's funeral. But if a reply to the family's lawsuit filed last week by the city in superior court is any indication, it looks like they'll be waiting awhile for their check.
Darwin was killed in December when a police cruiser collided with the van he was driving. According to police reports, the cruiser was traveling an estimated 75 mph in a 45 mph zone when it collided with Darwin, who was turning left onto Boyer Street from Wilkinson Boulevard.
The impact of the auto collision that killed Darwin was so intense, it flipped the van he was driving four times, and blew Darwin, who wasn't wearing a seatbelt, through the front passenger window. A few minutes later, a man who witnessed the accident from a nearby gas station watched as Darwin took his last breath and lay still.
Darwin, 33, died face down in a ditch on the side of Wilkinson Boulevard.
According to police department policy, officers must use their lights and/or sirens when exceeding the speed limit -- and speeding is only justified when officers are headed to an urgent or emergency situation. Officer David Nifong, 25, has claimed he was pursuing a speeder when he hit Darwin, though that claim remains unproven -- and likely unprovable. Nifong wasn't using his lights or siren at the time. According to calculations in a police report, the two cars would never have collided had Nifong been traveling 62 mph or less.
If the average citizen had killed Darwin in the same manner, he or she would be subject to civil, and criminal litigation. But since Nifong was employed by the City of Charlotte when he collided with Darwin, the Darwin family may never collect a dime.
That's because in North Carolina, a sweeping legal shield called governmental immunity still protects local governments from liability for harm committed in the performance of a government function -- and allows cities and counties to choose who they will compensate, when they will be compensated, and the amount of that compensation, regardless of the extent of the damage done.
Governmental immunity is one of four defenses city attorneys have chosen to use in their answer to the Darwin family's lawsuit.
We are still investigating the case and incident and will present a fair response in court, said City Attorney Mac McCarley.
Darwin attorney Lee Olive said he suspects the city has chosen to use the immunity defense in this case because recent wrongful death awards by Mecklenburg County juries have run as high as $8 million.
In its reply, the city is also alleging that Darwin contributed to his own death, called gross contributory negligence, by having thoughtless disregard for the consequences of his actions when he turned into oncoming traffic without making any effort to avoid the collision that killed him.
Normally, a civil suit against a government employee for actions committed on government time would be summarily thrown out of court if the governmental body involved used the immunity defense. But Olive has thrown a relatively new twist at the court, a legal precedent of sorts that wasn't available a year ago.
In March, the NC Supreme Court heard Dobrowolska v. The City of Greensboro, a case stemming from an accident last year involving an on-duty Greensboro police officer who was at fault in an auto accident that permanently maimed two children. In that case, Attorney Joe Craig argued that by refusing to pay damages to the two children, the City of Greensboro violated their equal protection and due process rights under the state and US Constitution. Cities, Craig argued, cannot pick and choose whom they will compensate. A ruling in that case could trump the city's immunity claims in the Darwin case.
Like Greensboro, the City of Charlotte carries some insurance coverage that varies across various governmental functions. Police insurance, for instance, only covers settlements between $2 million and $4 million. That means that for settlements outside of those amounts, the city is uninsured, and by law can choose which victims it will reimburse.
If the state supreme court buys Craig's argument, it could rule in one of two ways. It could either force municipalities across the state to stop discriminating and settle all claims, which would force them to purchase insurance like the rest of the population. The courts could also go with a second option, forcing cities that choose to remain uninsured to claim governmental immunity in every liability case.
From a political standpoint, they can't do that, said Olive.
In the meantime, Olive said he's throwing every charge in the book against the city to keep the case alive and increase his clients' odds of getting their case before a jury despite the city's claims of immunity.
I don't think a jury will zero this family, said Olive.
The only charge that can overcome the city's immunity shield is one of recklessness or gross negligence -- an extremely difficult legal standard to prove, and one that would not normally be necessary had a regular citizen collided with Darwin in the same manner. Without the city's immunity claims, Darwin's clients could win compensation from the city by proving that the officer was negligent, a much lower legal standard.
All (Darwin) was doing was making a left turn, said Olive. I think I have enough to show recklessness.
Olive is currently fighting several additional battles with the city to get his hands on information he needs to make his case. He is currently in the process of obtaining the officer's on-duty driving record from the city, which the city to date has refused to turn over without a court order.
Olive estimates it could take at least another month to obtain the additional data he needs from the city to make his case, which will likely be heard some time this summer.
The Raw TruthPost stories stir national interest in Hispanic-Black tension. By Tara Servatius
Many Creative Loafing readers may not have ever read The Charlotte Post. But the Charlotte newspaper that dubs itself The Voice of the Black Community is now familiar to thousands, maybe millions of Americans.
Earlier this month, the paper's frank coverage of tensions between African-Americans and Hispanics sparked a flurry of national coverage, which included stories by national news media like FOX, NBC and The Wall Street Journal. National radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh read both articles aloud on the air.
It's got the nation riled up, said Post owner and publisher Gerald Johnson. I'm sort of shocked.
Over the past month, the paper has been bombarded with letters, emails and phone calls from African-Americans, Hispanics and whites from mixed communities across the country.
The paper's coverage included two articles, one called When Worlds Collide, in which African-Americans candidly stated their views on Hispanics, and a follow-up article in which Hispanics did the same. Post reporter Tia Burch took to the street to find out what members of both communities thought about recent census numbers that indicate that there are now estimated to be 35.3 million Hispanics in the US, just shy of the 36.4 million African-American population.
Burch found that mutual fear and resentment ran deep among members of both groups interviewed by the paper. One black male interviewed for the first article said Hispanics were people to fear and that they play stupid by acting as if they don't understand English when they actually do.
They are taking over, he told The Post. They are taking all of our jobs. I just don't care to be around them. They make my skin crawl. . .They are the new niggers. When it comes to ghetto, they are ghetto with a capital G.
Hispanics interviewed for the second article through the aid of an interpreter expressed similar sentiments.
I know that whites and Latinos are dangerous too, but blacks are the most dangerous, said one Hispanic cab driver. When I see black people, I don't want to pick them up.
Johnson said that most local African-American leaders the paper interviewed denied that there is tension between blacks and Hispanics in Charlotte.
But none of them live in the communities where we interviewed people, said Johnson. They were just out of touch with people. It's easy to say the problem doesn't exist if you live in Southeast Charlotte. I think it's naive to say it doesn't exist because you don't see it.
Johnson said he was surprised at the reactions of members of both minority groups when they were randomly interviewed on the street.
What we got back were personal statements, said Johnson. We weren't expecting that. We published what people had to say, which is our job.
Johnson said he isn't surprised that most of the local media, including the local FOX affiliate news station, shied away from the story. In some ways, said Johnson, it was a story only a black-owned and black-run paper could completely capture.
We thought about that and what we agreed on is it would be more difficult for someone else to do because I am not sure you would get the honesty of people responding to a black (reporter) or to another publication that wasn't predominantly African-American, said Johnson. I'm not sure Creative Loafing or The Charlotte Observer would have published it even if they had heard it.
Using a translator helped Hispanics open up too, said Johnson.
Once she started speaking Spanish to them, they talked to us, said Johnson.
Johnson said he believes that the only way to begin to solve the problem and remove the resentment is to use community building initiatives to bring the two groups together. But political leaders need to stay out of it for it to work, said Johnson
The Black Political Caucus I love dearly, but their agenda is political and this has to go beyond the political arena, said Johnson. We need to bring people together for non-political reasons. Once political groups get together, the motive for getting together is not clear.
Both conservative Republican county commissioner Bill James and Democrat Eric Douglas, president of the black caucus, are often at odds with each other -- but both would like to lure Hispanics into their respective parties, something Johnson thinks could do more damage than good to race relations.
Both gentlemen think if they can get ahold of this group (Hispanics) they can turn the community into a Democrat or Republican stronghold, said Johnson.
The whole thing has been a learning experience for Johnson, whose family has owned The Post since 1974.
It showed us how we spend so much time as a country being politically correct in how we say things, that things aren't being expressed because people fear the repercussions, said Johnson. In this case when someone had the guts to say it, it started a firestorm.
Park Helms' Greatest Hits VideoWill Bill James be next commissioner with TV star power?By Tara Servatius
Over the years, conservative Republican County Commissioner Bill James has spoken out against abortion, the homosexual content in plays and homosexuality itself -- stands that have made him a pariah in many quarters. So if the county were to produce, at taxpayer expense, a campaign-style biography of his life, and run it for a month on public television, it's likely that the county would be bombarded with angry phone calls.
If the county's public service and information department were to add the touches James plans to request, including an interview with his minister, Glenn Wagner of fundamentalist Calvary Church praising his faith in God and the role it has played in his political career, if would likely only add fuel to the fire.
But that's exactly what James plans to do unless County Commission Chairman Parks Helms pulls off the air a county-produced, seven-minute piece featuring praise from Helms' minister, his wife and his mother, among others.
James is demanding that Helms reimburse the county several thousand dollars, the approximate fair market value of the commercial's production and airtime, and commit to a policy that bans commissioners from using the government channel and county television production staff for their own personal promotion. If he doesn't, said James, he'll request an infomercial of his own.
We'll use photos of my kids running across green grass into my loving arms, said James.
County spokesman Danny Diehl said the county would be willing to produce and air a video for James similar to the one he produced about Helms.
We'd be more than happy to do one for Bill James if (County Manager) Harry Jones asked us to, said Diehl.
County employees produced the Helms piece for a March banquet held by the Urban League of Central Carolinas honoring Helms for winning the Whitney M. Young public service award the group gives out each year.
County Manager Jones, a member of the Urban League's board of directors, directed county staff to produce and air the video after Madine Fails, president of the Urban League of Central Carolinas, asked him if the county could produce the Helms piece in time for the banquet.
People call the county every day and ask them to be supportive of an event, said Fails. We always try to figure out how we can cut costs. I could have gone to Parks Helms and asked him (to get the county to pay for and produce the video) but why would we do that when the county manager is on the Urban League board?
The situation is made even more politically and ethically complex by the fact that the county, under Helms' leadership, has given $40,000 per year over the last several years to the Urban League to pay for staffing for a computer-training program.
In a memo, Jones said he asked county staff to produce the video on three conditions: that it be done at no cost to taxpayers other than staff time, that it wouldn't distract staff from their regular duties, and that the segment would be a useful way to inform the public of the value of public service and the history of public service provided by an elected official.
Diehl said that staff was able to meet all three conditions. The video took two county staff members a total of 20 hours to produce, which Diehl estimates cost the county about $400 in staff time. Diehl said there were no extra costs, because the two staff members would have had to fill the seven-minute slot in the half-hour news magazine with something, whether they'd produced the Helms piece or not.
The seven-minute piece on Helms was shown 24 times in the month of April on Government Cable Channel 16 as a part of Mecklenburg Forum, the county's half-hour TV news forum.
In it, friends, family members and Helms' former preacher praised Helms' faith and the role it played in his life as an elected official.
Those close to Parks Helms say it's his faith and love of people that guide him in his personal and public lives, county employee John Gordon said in a voice-over.
The video captured even higher praise for Helms from Charlie Milford, Helms' longtime minister at Park Road Baptist Church.
His absolute belief that all people are children of God and have infinite worth inherently in one sense controls everything he thinks, Milford told the viewing audience. It goes deep. He really cares about people, especially the ones who are the underdogs, the ones who are downtrodden.
I think his ideas are wonderful and they show his Christianity and his love for humanity, Minnie McKee, a friend of Helms' said in an interview.
The county even interviewed Helms' wife and mother.
He's a real honest person, Helms' mother, Ida Helms, told the audience.
I made the right choice to marry him, said Helms' wife, Eleanor.
Helms said other commissioners have the right to disagree with using county resources this way, but that he has no plans to request that the county pull the piece off the air.
I didn't ask for it, I didn't produce it, said Helms. I didn't ask for the award. I have had lots of times I have been involved in controversies, but this is a first. I'll be somewhat at a loss to see what people say.
Helms said that it is not unusual for the county to send out fax announcements when one of the commissioners wins an award.
I think the difference here was it turned out to be a video, said Helms.
But James, who just won a national Eagle award from Phyllis Schafly's Eagle Forum for his conservative stands on moral and social issues, said that if Helms doesn't back down, he'll go forward with a commercial about his award to make a point, though he disagrees with using taxpayer money that way.
If conservatives across Mecklenburg County have to be subjected to an infomercial promoting the great wonders of Parks Helms, they can also be exposed to the things Bill James has done, said James.
Republican Commissioner Tom Cox said county resources should not be used to cast commissioners in a positive light for any reason. Cox said he thinks county television should be used to inform the public about where individual commissioners stand on the issues.
Receiving an award doesn't fall into the public policy category, said Cox. We ought not to use the TV to publicize the accomplishments of commissioners.