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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.

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