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’09 local news in review

by Keith Barber

If history is the study of change over time, 2009 will undoubtedly be remembered as a dynamic time in the history of our area. It was a year filled with dramatic changes in the areas of economics, politics and social justice — changes that made an impact on all those who call the Piedmont Triad home. Here are the Top 10 local stories of 2009 as published in the pages of YES! Weekly:

THE SAGA OF KALVIN MICHAEL SMITH

On Jan. 8, Superior Court Judge Richard L. Doughton weighed his decision for approximately 30 seconds before declaring that the defense team for Kalvin Michael Smith — the man convicted of brutally assaulting store clerk Jill Marker during an armed robbery of the Silk Plant Forest shop in December 1995 — failed to prove its claims during a plea hearing to grant Smith a new trial. Smith’s attorney, David Pishko, had built what appeared to be a strong case that unethical behavior by Winston-Salem police officers and prosecutors from the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office led to a wrongful conviction of Smith, but Doughton was not swayed.

In an exclusive interview, Smith told YES! Weekly he was “coerced and tricked” by former Winston-Salem police Detective Donald R. Williams, the lead investigator in the case, into writing a false statement where he stated he was at the Silk Plant Forest shop on the night of the assault. Smith said his biggest regret was responding to Williams’ request for an interview in January 2007 at the Winston-Salem Public Safety Center.

“I should never have went down there, but I had trust back then,” Smith said. “I had trust that the [police] were there to serve and protect, not to coerce and railroad.”

In March, the Silk Plant Forest Citizens Review Committee adopted a resolution by a vote of 7-2 that it could find no credible evidence to show that Smith was at the Silk Plant Forest shop at the time of the attack on Marker.

In April, Forsyth County Judge Edgar B. Gregory upheld the city of Winston-Salem’s summons to compel Williams to testify before the city council about his role in the Marker assault investigation.

On June 11, Williams testified for nearly six hours in a closed session meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council.

On Dec. 17, Forsyth County Superior Court Judge Richard W. Stone ordered that Williams’ testimony be released publicly. The City Attorney’s office posted a transcript of Williams’ testimony on the city’s website on Christmas Eve.

MITCHELL JOHNSON FIRED AS GREENSBORO CITY MANAGER

On March 3, the Greensboro City Council voted 5-4 to fire Greensboro City Manager Mitchell Johnson amid the “black book” controversy surrounding the Greensboro Police Department and heavy criticism of the way Johnson handled former police Chief David Wray’s resignation.

Mayor Yvonne Johnson, Councilman Robbie Perkins, Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small and Councilwoman Goldie Wells opposed the resolution to fire Johnson.

In late February, the US Justice Department undertook a review of discrimination claims made by dozens of black police officers. The review marked the second time the Justice Department had looked into allegations of wrongdoing in the Greensboro Police Department under the administration of former Chief David Wray. In 2006, the FBI investigated to determine whether criminal prosecution was warranted.

Thirty-nineblack officers had already received permission from the JusticeDepartment to file suit against the city after the Equal EmploymentOpportunity Commission failed to negotiate a settlement between thecity and the officers. Councilwoman Trudy Wade and Scott Sanders werelater added as codefendants in the black officers’ lawsuit. The sagacontinued as the Justice Department complained that lawyers retained bythe city of Greensboro restrained interviewees speaking about employeesthat had not signed releases as the federal agency conducted itsinvestigation into complaints of racial discrimination by the 39 blackpolice officers suing the city.

IMMIGRATION ISSUES

Duringan April 1 forum on the 287(g) program, the Rev. Mark Sills questionedGuilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes on his agency’s handling ofimmigration violations. Sills expressed concerns that Latinos areincreasingly being subjected to racial profiling under federal programsthat allow local law enforcement agencies to check the immigrationstatus of people stopped by the police. The Guilford County Sheriff’sOffice and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement signed a memorandumof agreement in October.

Atthe April forum Sills grilled Barnes on his office’s criteria forquestioning a suspect’s immigration status, and how the Guilford CountySheriff’s Office could be skating on thin ice regarding federal lawsagainst racial profiling.

Aspublic outrage has exploded in recent years about illegal immigration,law enforcement agencies have clamored to sign up for 287(g) as programspending has increased from $5 million in 2006 to $54.1 million thisyear. In 2007, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office’s 287(g)application had been held up and Barnes enlisted the aid of then USSen. Elizabeth Dole, who persuaded ICE to give the sheriff’s officeaccess to the Department of Homeland Security’s Automated BiometricIdentification System database.

Barnes told YES! Weekly: “Racialprofiling no matter what or where is wrong; it should not occur.” Whenasked by the Rev. Sills about whether he would support the formation ofa citizen review committee to oversee the Guilford County 287(g)program, Barnes replied, “I don’t think that would be a bad idea atall.”

Two weekslater, activists from the Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace staged aprotest march in Graham to voice their opposition to the AlamanceSheriff’s Office 287(g) program. The activists were met by acounter-protest led by supporters of Alamance County Sheriff TerryJohnson and his immigration enforcement policies.

ALLEGATIONS OF HARASSMENT AND ABUSE LEVELED AT GPD GANG UNIT

First,then-suspended Greensboro police officer AJ Blake told reporters at NewLight Missionary Baptist Church on June 2 that the police department’sgang enforcement unit has focused inordinate attention on the LatinKings, even to the exclusion of investigating gangs that were shootingeach other. “The Latin Kings have been specifically the focus, given tome by my supervisor, Sgt. [Ronald] Sizemore that he referred to asbeing directed by Capt. [John] Wolfe,” Blake said. “The gang unit wasinstructed to charge the Latin Kings with any possible violations thatwe could.”

JorgeCornell, the North Carolina leader of the Latin Kings, alleged that inthe 12 months since he launched his public effort to bring gangstogether, the gang unit has subjected his group to a nearly constantcampaign of harassment, including filing false charges to tie up hisresources in legal fees and lost time and conducting illegal stops andillegal searches. Meanwhile, the Greensboro Human Relations Commissioninvestigated five separate complaints filed against the gang unit bythe Latin Kings in as many months.

“Ourdepartment’s policy is to not profile or be biased against any group orindividual based on race, gender or ethnicity,” Assistant Police ChiefAnita Holder said. “It’s important to remember that officers act basedon behavior.” In August, Blake was acquitted of two charges ofassaulting a female, two weeks after being terminated by the policedepartment.

WINSTON-SALEM BASEBALL STADIUM CONTROVERSY

TheWinston-Salem City Council voted unanimously secure an additional $15.7million to help Billy Prim, owner of the Winston-Salem Dash minorleague baseball team, complete a new ballpark between First Street andPeters Creek Parkway in downtown Winston-Salem after two heated publicforums in June. The agreement brought the city’s total investment inPhase I of the ballpark project to nearly $28 million. %u2029Winston-SalemMayor Allen Joines, acting in his capacity as president of theWinston-Salem Alliance, signed an agreement with Prim to assign Prim’sreal estate development company, Brookstown Development Partners LLC,options to purchase 38 properties in the immediate vicinity of thedowntown ballpark on Dec. 15, 2006 — nearly a year before the citycouncil approved an initial investment of $12 million in theconstruction of a new home for the Chicago White Sox single- A squad.Records found at the Forsyth County Register of Deeds indicate thatPrim utilized a number of these properties as collateral for a $13million loan his development company received from Regions Bank.Records also indicate that the Winston-Salem Alliance began purchasingoptions for properties around the ballpark site as far back as 2003.

After10 months of inactivity, construction on the baseball stadium indowntown Winston-Salem resumed on Sept. 22. Prim had announced the daybefore that he had secured the necessary financing to move forward withconstruction on the stadium during the Winston-Salem City Councilmeeting. Prim said his goal is to open the stadium on April 1, 2010.

WINSTON-SALEM ELECTS THREE NEW MEMBERS TO CITY COUNCIL

DerwinMontgomery, a 21-year-old Winston-Salem State University student, won91 percent of the vote in the East Ward race to become one of theyoungest members of the Winston-Salem City Council in recent memory.Montgomery defeated four-term incumbent Joycelyn Johnson in theSeptember Democratic primary, which paved the way for his lopsidedvictory on Election Day.

JamesTaylor, a 28-year-old juvenile justice counselor, defeated incumbentEvelyn Terry in the September Democratic primary for the SoutheastWard, which led to his easy victory over Republican challenger ChuckWoolard in the general election.

DeniseD. Adams defeated Republican John Hopkins to win the North Ward seat onthe council. Adams had received the endorsement of retiring citycouncilman Nelson Malloy, and easily defeated Hopkins in the generalelection.

WhileMontgomery, Taylor and Adams joined the council as new members earlierthis month, veteran Democratic incumbents Dan Besse, Molly Leight andWanda Merschel held on to their seats after closer-than-expected racesagainst Republican challengers.

Robert Clark, the only Republican on the partisan board, ran unopposed.

Mayor Allen Joines, a Democrat, also ran unopposed and easily earned a third term in office.

KNIGHT’S ELECTION SIGNALS SHIFT IN GREENSBORO CITY POLITICS

BillKnight, a retired certified public accountant, defeated one-termincumbent Yvonne Johnson in Greensboro’s mayoral race on Nov. 3.

Knightled a group of conservative candidates that eked out key victories inthe Greensboro City Council race. Nancy Vaughan led balloting in theat-large race, followed by Robbie Perkins. The third-place finisher,Danny Thompson, knocked off incumbent Mayor Pro Tem Councilwoman SandraAnderson Groat. Mary Rakestraw defeated Joel Landau in the District 4race, while Zack Matheny handily defeated challenger George Hartzman in the District 3 race. In District 5,Trudy Wade defeated Art Boyett, while incumbent Dianne Bellamy-Smallearned a narrow win over challenger Luther T. Falls in District 1 andJim Kee prevailed over Nettie Coad for the open District 2 seat vacatedby Goldie Wells. As a result of the Nov. 3 elections, Republicans nowhold a two-thirds majority on the nonpartisan board.

FORSYTH DA CONTROVERSY

Inthe span of three days in September, two groups of Winston- Salemclergy demanded that former Forsyth County District Attorney Tom Keithresign immediately from the post he had held for nearly two decades.

The Rev. Carlton AG Eversley referred to a corrected quote attributed to Keith in an Aug. 26 YES! Weekly articleentitled, “Forsyth DA: Racial Justice Act inherently flawed,” during apress conference held by the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem andVicinity on the steps of the Forsyth County Hall of Justice on Sept. 11.

“Mr.Keith’s apparently stubbornly held, virulently racist white-supremacistand wildly inaccurate views that, ‘If you’re African American you aresix, seven or eight times or some figure more likely to have a violenthistory’ is at the core of the problem for Kalvin Michael Smith or anyother person accused of violent crimes in Forsyth County,” Eversley,president of the Ministers Conference, said.

The original quote printed in the Aug. 26 edition of YES! Weekly readas follows: “If you’re African American, you’re six, seven or eighttimes more likely to have a violent history. I didn’t go out there andand say, ‘You commit eight crimes, and I’m a white man, I’ll commitone.’ That’s just instincts, that’s just how it is.”

On Sept. 9, YES! Weekly issued a correction to the quote attributed to Keith. The district attorney actually said, “That’s just statistics. That’show it is.” Eversley said the difference of one word in a newspaperarticle was irrelevant when placed in the larger context of Keith’sactions in the cases of Darryl Hunt, Joseph Abbitt and Kalvin MichaelSmith. During a Sept. 9 press conference at the YES! Weekly offices, Keith said he would not seek a sixth term as district attorney.

Healso defended the actions of his office, stating that the men and womenof the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office serve the public tothe best of their abilities “without malice or prejudice to anyone.”

Keithannounced he would resign as district attorney on Nov. 30, nearly ayear before the end of his fifth term. Gov. Beverly Perdue appointedthen- Assistant District Attorney Jim O’Neill to serve out theremainder of Keith’s term, which expires in 2010.

DELL PLANT CLOSING

InOctober, Dell announced that more than 900 employees at itsWinston-Salem desktop computer manufacturing plant would lose theirjobs over the course of several months after the company’s announcementthat it would shut down its facility in January 2010.

Dell received about$281 million in local and state economic incentives to bring itsdesktop manufacturing facility to Forsyth County in 2005. Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said if there was a silver lining to Dell’sclosing, it is a clawback provision that the $15.6 million the city ofWinston-Salem put forth in incentives would be fully repaid. Joinesannounced that Dell had agreed to fully repay the city the money aheadof schedule on Nov. 2 — one day before Election Day.

RECESSION HITS PIEDMONT TRIAD HARD

PaceAirlines announced it would lay off 337 employees at its Winston-Salemoperation based at Smith Reynolds Airport in September. CEO WilliamCharles Rodgers was arrested by NC Department of Insuranceinvestigators at Piedmont Triad International Airport and charged withone count of willful failure to pay group health insurance premiums.State investigators allege that Rodgers terminated his employee grouphealth insurance without providing the required 45-day notice to his337 employees. The folding of Pace Airlines, along with the Dell plantclosing and the resulting layoffs of more than 900 workers, revealedthat the Piedmont Triad was not immune to the global recession thataffected communities across the nation in 2009.

Counterclockwisefrom top left: Jorge Cornell, Scott Sanders, Kalvin Michael Smith andnewly elected Greensboro Mayor Bill Knight all made local headlines in2009. (file photos)

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