2013 news in review: Winston-Salem

by Jordan Green @JordanGreenYES

Winston-Salem voters resoundingly ratified the pro-growth, downtown revitalization agenda embraced by the current city council when they went to the polls in November to reelect every single incumbent on the ballot.

That included Mayor Allen Joines, who won a fourth term against a Republican challenger rejected by his party because of a racial epithet and criminal background while commanding polling numbers similar to years when he ran unopposed. It included Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, who has represented her ward since 1977, along with relative newcomers such as Derwin Montgomery, James Taylor Jr. and Denise D. Adams.

The seating of the new council elevated Robert Clark, the sole Republican on the council, to the position of chairman of the finance committee — responsible for writing the annual budget and replacing Wanda Merschel. Dan Besse took over the chairmanship of the public works committee, where he said he hopes to advocate for development of transportation infrastructure. Molly Leight became the new chair of the general government committee. And Burke passed the baton to Taylor on the public safety committee.

The council goes into 2014 unified behind an agenda of public investment, with both Joines and Clark supporting an initiative to place a municipal bond before voters, following a year that the council reduced its financial liabilities by selling Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum to Wake Forest University and similarly making Bowman Gray Stadium available to Winston-Salem State University.

The council had considered a bond referendum in 2012, but opted for austerity instead. It’s a safe bet that all members will support borrowing to finance street repair. An Urban Circulator transit system designed to link major center-city destinations and spur infill develop — a long-held goal of Besse’s — will be more controversial. Jeff MacIntosh, who succeeds Merschel as Northwest Ward representative, has become increasingly skeptical about whether such a project can pay for itself over time. Adams has signaled that she will also need to be persuaded, while insisting that her support will be contingent on the circulator serving her constituents in the North Ward by including stops at Wake Forest and the coliseum.

While council members wrangle over the details of public investment, Joines has invested political capital from his overwhelming electoral win into a task force on poverty, work and opportunity, which he plans to launch in January. The effort builds on successes in reducing chronic homelessness in Winston-Salem and, if successful, helps position Joines for a future run for higher office. The initiative could burnish the reputation of the popular mayor, who already enjoys good name recognition and excels at fundraising.

“Do you have an alternative to the suffering of the working poor?” Joines asked, framing the effort as a moral imperative after being sworn in for his fourth term. “Do you have a solution to offer the single mom who works two jobs to make ends meet? Or do you have a solution for the couple that has been working every day but some catastrophic event has placed them in an economic situation that is beyond their control?” While city council made cautious if deliberate moves to enact a progressive agenda, elected officials on the Republican-controlled Forsyth County Commission and GOP-dominated county legislative delegation to the General Assembly pushed in the opposite direction.

The conservative Republican majority on the county commission squashed hopes of building an iconic, new public library in a centrally located site that would tie together the government sector, the Downtown Arts District, Restaurant Row and the nascent Theatre District, choosing instead the cheapest option of rebuilding at the current site on West Fifth Street.

“We think small, and that’s where we stand,” said Democratic commissioner Walter Marshall, who was on the losing side of the vote.

The site rejected by the county commission is adjacent to Merschel Plaza, conceived as potentially being the city’s signature gathering place, equivalent to Center City Park in Greensboro.

Conservative Republicans on the county commission, none of whom supported the 2010 bond referendum, rejected calls for cooperation with the city, arguing that if city officials were interested in a partnership they should have reached out to the county sooner. Mayor Joines contradicted the claim, telling YES! Weekly that he and City Manager Lee Garrity have both told county commissioners they would be willing to work with the county, adding that they could pay for development of the park though tax increment financing.

The General Assembly, which has been under Republican control for three years, pulled rank on the city of Winston-Salem on the issue of guns in public parks. The General Assembly took authority to regulate guns in parks away from municipalities in 2011. In January, the Winston- Salem City Council met with the legislative delegation, and Joines pleaded for a return to home rule.

“What we’re asking here is to simply give the control back to the local government, where we feel we have the ability to know what’s best for our citizens, our parks and our recreational facilities,” Joines said.

Republican members of the delegation, including Reps. Debra Conrad and Donny Lambeth, indicated they didn’t have a problem clarifying the legislation — the new law was ambiguous as to whether cities could prohibit firearms on playing fields and greenways — but declined to have any part in devolving power back to localities.

A bill signed by Gov. Pat McCrory in late July clarified the law, but not to the city council’s liking. It stipulated that citizens could carry guns onto playgrounds, greenways and biking and walking trails. Cities are only able to prohibit firearms on playing fields when games are scheduled. In September, the city updated its local ordinances accordingly, but the city council went on record with an official resolution of protest.

The year 2013 was a first outing for virtually every member of the legislative delegation from Forsyth County. Conrad, a former Republican county commission, received an appointment as vice-chairman of the House Commerce Committee. Notwithstanding a statement during the 2012 campaign that she had been feeling pressure to raise money to help Republican candidates in tighter races in exchange for the appointment of her choice, Conrad was able to land the position without contributing a dime to her fellow candidates.

Lambeth, a retired hospital executive and former chairman of the Winston-Salem/ Forsyth County School Board, served on the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services.

Rep. Ed Hanes Jr., a Democrat elected to represent a large section of Winston-Salem, briefly flirted with a run for Congress to fill the seat left vacant with President Obama’s appointment of US House Rep. Mel Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, but ultimately decided to stay in state government after a host of more seasoned politicos flooded the race.

Sen. Earline Parmon may have had the most eventful year of any Democratic lawmaker from Forsyth County. She won her seat the previous year after Republican redistricting mapmakers drew predecessor Linda Garrou out of NC Senate District 32. Republicans had justified the change on the basis that it would increase African- American representation, and the 2012 achieved exactly that through Parmon’s elevation.

Parmon became a forceful legislative participant in the Moral Monday movement, which staged protests week after week against radical changes undertaken by the Republican majority in the General Assembly. On July 1, Parmon staged a press conference in Winston-Salem to highlight the effects of the Republican majority’s decision to cut off benefits to the long-term unemployed, along with Hanes, Rep. Evelyn Terry (D-Forsyth) and Rep. Alma Adams (D-Guilford).

Parmon’s staff closely monitored delays in benefits experienced by constituents in Winston-Salem as problems with the rollout of a new delivery system for food stamps unfolded in July. The new NC FAST system administered by the NC Department of Health and Human Services took on an ironic reputation as clients complained that they were literally going hungry because they were unable to access benefits.

A simultaneous outcry went up when NC Tracks, a new Medicaid billing system, was launched unsuccessfully on July 1. Service providers made widespread reports that they were unable to receive reimbursement under the new system. In December, the NC Auditor’s office reported that the system had encountered 3,200 defects, that the state health department lacked a plan for plan for addressing outstanding issues, and that a “revolving door” between the agency and a private contractor “creates a perception of bias or conflict of interest.”

Parmon, who serves with Lambeth on the legislative oversight committee, ended up playing a key role in the saga. The lawmaker asked Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos in October if her agency had received any professional opinions that the system might not be ready to launch on July 1.

“No, senator,” Wos responded. State Auditor Beth Wood later told lawmakers that Wos had provided “incorrect information” in her answer, noting that an audit in March had raised serious concerns about the system.

While poor people in Winston-Salem and across the state reeled from the cutoff of benefits to the long-term unemployed and kinks in delivery of food stamps and medical services, property owners in historically black areas of Winston-Salem absorbed a serious hit to the value of their homes as a result of slow sales and foreclosures in the worst recession since World War II.

In some neighborhoods, values dropped by as much as 70 percent. Angry homeowners called Forsyth County Tax Assessor John Burgiss to account. Burgiss defended his staff’s work, and the Republicancontrolled county commission voted to give him a raise at the conclusion of the revaluation. But following an investigation by YES! Weekly and Camel City Dispatch, the appointed Forsyth County Board of Equalization and Review voted revise values across two predominantly African- American neighborhoods.

And while freshman lawmakers got their footing in Raleigh representing new districts drawn two years prior, Republicans took control of the Forsyth County Board of Elections with dramatic effect. Ken Raymond, the new chairman, questioned the provision of early voting facilities at Winston-Salem State University, a historically black university that has been flagged for both election irregularities and violation of electioneering rules. And less than six months after taking control of the board, the new Republican majority moved to oust Elections Director Rob Coffman for his handling of a small election in the village of Tobaccoville while also citing a general breakdown of trust.

If you looked at municipal, county and state government in North Carolina in 2013, you might be surprised to discover that the elected officials in all three levels represented the same constituents.

Welcome to the new reality of extreme gerrymandering and no-holds-barred, winner-take-all politics. !