James “Smuggie” Mitchell’s abrupt resignation from city council after 20 years Monday morning caused actual head turns from his colleagues in the room.
They knew he was wrestling with a potential conflict of interest, first raised by WFAE and the Charlotte Ledger, after he became president and part owner of a construction company that has contracts with the city. But few expected him to resolve it so quickly.
Why it matters: Council members, who receive a total compensation of about $34,000, constantly wrestle with the desire to serve and other opportunities. After a 2020 that was full of ethics complaints lobbed at council members — some valid, some not so much — Mitchell is the first one to excuse himself from his government seat in favor of his private endeavors.
- State law says the council must now appoint someone to fill the rest of Mitchell’s term, which ends in December. City attorney Patrick Baker will put together an application and ethics packet to give to the council for approval next Tuesday. Then they’ll set a timetable for the appointment process.
Want to be a council member? The law requires filling from within the departing member’s own party. So you must be a Democrat, a Charlotte resident, 21 years or older and able to vote here.
- Disqualifications, according to Article VI of the state constitution, include felony convictions and “any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”
- Mitchell said in a virtual media briefing that he has a short list of five candidates to fill his old role. He would prefer the candidate be a Black woman.
Background: The sequence of events that led to this unfolded in short order. On January 4, three local business leaders — former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, EY Charlotte’s Malcomb Coley, and former Duke Energy executive Lloyd Yates — launched the investment firm Bright Hope Capital LLC with one goal:
- To develop and grow Black- and Hispanic-owned businesses in the Charlotte region.
Its first acquisition was R.J. Leeper, a company founded in 1993 by Ron Leeper that’s completed more than 150 projects for a total volume of more than $650 million. And its first decision for Leeper was making Mitchell, the city councilman, its president.
- R.J. Leeper has active contracts with the city on projects such as the $127 million convention center makeover, and the $600 million expansion and renovation of the airport terminal.
- Mitchell initially said he’d just recuse himself from any vote that included the company, but turns out that would still be a violation of state law. He’d thought he could split his time between the two jobs.
- Mitchell told reporters he wasn’t aware of the state law forbidding council members from having an ownership in companies that do business with the city.
A third-generation Charlottean and proud West Charlotte High grad, Mitchell was the longest-serving city council member. Over the years, he’s jumped at all kinds of opportunities.
- In 2013, he ran for mayor, losing in the primary to Patrick Cannon — who ultimately was forced to resign as mayor after he was arrested for corruption.
- In 2018, WBTV investigated Mitchell’s taxpayer-funded trips to visit the Detroit Lions facilities and communications he’d had with a Panthers executive about the stadium expansion here. The state GOP filed an ethics complaint saying Mitchell’s employer, JE Dunn, might’ve benefited from his knowledge.
- In winter of 2018-2019, Mitchell jumped aboard the short-lived Mike Bloomberg campaign to become Bloomberg’s well-paid state field director.
- As head of the city’s economic development committee, Mitchell has helped land major events and economic development projects for Charlotte, from the CIAA tournament to the new Major League Soccer Team to the overhaul of the old Eastland mall site.
What he’s saying: “It was a pleasure being a cheerleader for Charlotte for a long period of time,” Mitchell told reporters. “(Now) I can influence Charlotte in a different way. I can hire people and pay more than $15 an hour.”
Zooming out: Last year, ethics complaints and conflict of interest suggestions rained down on council members. At one point every member faced an ethics complaint.
- The most notable involved Tariq Bokhari’s nonprofit, Carolina Fintech Hub. Council went back on its plans to give CFH $1.5 million in CARES Act money for the nonprofit’s successful and reputable jobs creation program.
- That was a heated discussion. Council voted 9-1 to not fund the program because of Bokhari’s position as District 6’s representative.
Bokhari remained on council, and upon hearing Mitchell’s announcement on Monday, he swiveled quickly in his chair.
Fun fact: If this is all boring and insider-y to you, here’s perhaps the most interesting thing about Mitchell, the departing councilman: He’s married to an actual astronaut. His wife, Joan Higginbotham, was the third African-American woman to travel to space.
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