Charlotte CEOs’ private prattle on HB2

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Philip DuboisUNC Charlotte

Philip Dubois

Wonder how long Phil Dubois will remain a member of the Charlotte CEO club?

That’s probably on the agenda of the next meeting of the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, the group of top Charlotte leaders aiming to tackle key issues facing the community. Of course, these folks want to do the tackling in private, with limited accountability.

The desire for opacity is clear from Rick Rothacker’s story in today’s Charlotte Observer, which cribbed emails floating among the Queen City honchos that described the consternation caused by the House Bill 2 flap. Read “Dug In,” our July cover story about the issue. The bill limits protections for LGBT individuals, sparking cheers from social conservatives and jeers from progressives and others who don’t like discriminatory employment laws.

Grabbing emails through public records requests is a standard reporting tool in journalism, but it only works if someone involved is a government official. Dubois counts, so UNCC was obligated to cough up some emails that revealed some interesting details that otherwise would have remained private:

  • Many executives signed a letter, urging the NBA to keep the 2017 All Star Game in Charlotte even though state lawmakers had declined to repeal HB2. The letter was never sent.
  • David Carroll, the veteran Charlotte banker who is Wells Fargo’s highest-ranking local executive, initially signed the letter. Later, he took his name off. It’s unclear, but apparently the San Francisco-based bank didn’t want to line up against the gay-rights lobby that applauded the NBA’s effort to repeal HB2.
  • Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good essentially told the CEOs to keep their mouths shut about the controversy and opt for a group response. (It worked, based on our experience seeking comments from many CEOs for a story on the controversy.)
  • Frank Harrison, CEO of Charlotte-based Coca Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated, said “public statements can create unintended consequences.” (I wonder if he also mentioned that “private statements can create unintended consequences.”)
  • Dubois called the letter “pretty tame and we should not be paralyzed by the reluctance of one institution,” presumably Wells Fargo.

There’s a solid argument that it takes private talks to get stuff done, ranging from a decision to go to war to whether Joe Smith should get hired as the local mosquito-control commissioner. Journalists booted out of countless meetings, or denied access to CEOs and politicians who hide behind PR people, know that song very well.

But history, and common sense, suggests transparency almost always does more good than an unnecessary desire for secrecy. Had state lawmakers been more transparent in their HB2 deliberations, this fiasco might have been avoided. Had more Charlotte CEOs shared their heart-felt opinions about HB2 with the public, I suspect N.C. Senate Pro Tempore Phil Berger and other key HB2 supporters may have caved. To his credit, Berger spoke directly to reporters about HB2.

Moral of this story: If you really want to act like an exclusive, well-meaning country club board, make sure any public-sector officials are not in the loop — even one who runs the area’s flagship university.

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