At-large candidates in Greensboro municipal election struggle to differentiate themselves

by Jordan Green

Yvonne Johnson, Chris Lawyer and Sal Leone (l-r) were among 11 at-large candidates for Greensboro City Council who spoke at a political forum on Monday. (photo by Jordan Green)

Councilman Danny Thompson, one of two at-large members seeking reelection to Greensboro City Council, told voters at a candidate forum on Monday that he is proud of what the council has accomplished during his tenure. 

“The successes we’ve had the past two years on council in our economic development efforts and our budgetary process, we’re actually one of the few cities in the country that actually reduced taxes over the last two years,” said Thompson, who is part of the council’s narrow conservative majority. “Revenues have decreased. We were able to cut government spending, and we’re able to provide all the vital services that people want and need without any major cuts that came up in the papers.”

Out of 14 candidates vying for three at-large seats on council, 11 showed up for the forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad and the Greensboro Voters Alliance. The Oct. 11 primary will winnow the at-large field to six candidates, who will advance to the Nov. 8 general election. Candidates Deborah Fae Brogden, Hayden Jesserer and Christopher McLaughlin did not attend.

Thompson drew derisive laughter from some in the audience when he said, “I think over the past two years the city of Greensboro has been a poster child for open communication in council meetings.”

Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan, the other incumbent in the race, disputed Thompson’s characterization.

“As far as saying that we had open communications with the landfill, people are coming up and they’re talking to us,” she said, prompting applause. “There’s no dialogue. You know, there was not one community meeting where staff and council members sat down and said, ‘What can we do to make this better?’ To say that there was a discussion, a conversation just isn’t true. Just because people come as a speaker from the floor doesn’t mean they’re being heard.”

The League of Women Voters is among a group of plaintiffs that sued the city council earlier this year, and won a court order preventing the council from expanding the landfill. The Greensboro Voters Alliance was formed by landfill opponents to get out the vote to elect a council more in line with their goals.

Marlando Demonte Pridgen, a first-time candidate from east Greensboro, drew appreciative murmurs during his remarks on whether council is listening to citizens.

“I think when you vote, one of the things you have to look at with this past council is you’re voting on a mentality of government,” Pridgen said. “There’s a mentality on council that they don’t believe the citizens’ input is worthy [of being involved in] government. So as a result, when they come to council meetings, their judgment and their decisions has over and over voted to not listen to the people. I suggest that you have to have it. So practically, how do we do this? You have to have town-hall meetings on more issues.”

Yvonne Johnson, a former mayor who served on council from 1993 to 2009, paid Pridgen a compliment.

“Can’t get much better than that,” she said. “When you don’t follow the rules, when you don’t have public dialogue and let the public speak on an issue when you should and when it’s legal to do so; and when you make decisions and you give no explanation for your reasons to make it; and when you’re challenged and you lose in court; something is wrong,” Johnson continued.

In recent weeks a broad consensus has emerged among candidates on how best to deal with the city’s solid-waste challenge that is starkly contrasted with the conservative leadership’sdogged efforts to reopen the landfill.Candidates Vaughan, Johnson, WayneAbraham, Marikay Abuzuaiter, ClarenceEaster, Cyndy Hayworth and Chris Lawyerexpressed support for a regional solutioninvolving Randolph or Rockingham counties.Vaughan, Abraham, Abuzuaiter, Hayworth andSal Leone said they would be in favor of takingRepublic Services up on an offer to reducecosts while continuing to transport the city’swaste to Montgomery County for disposal.Vaughan, Easter, Johnson and Lawyer saidthe city should step up recycling efforts toreduce its waste stream. Abraham, Abuzuaiter,Hayworth and Johnson said the city shouldexplore waste-to-energy and other emergingtechnologies as they become viable.Hayworth has elbowed her way into a sextetof candidates that are dead-set against reopeningthe landfill after previously stating that shewas undecided on the issue. “My answer would be in no manner openup the White Street Landfill,” Hayworth saidon Monday.Thompson favors using White StreetLandfill and pursuing regional solution only ifGreensboro can have an equity position.“Hopefully, by now everyone knowswhere I stand on the landfill,” he said. “Weresearched it over the past two years byempirical data as well as the rational input asto what is best, how do you best use an assetthat the city has, that the citizens have boughtand paid for and permitted? I believe it shouldhave been used for household waste. Ofcourse, I also believe that if were going to notuse that landfill, then we need an equity positionin a regional solution.”Lawyer did not state a position on the landfillduring the forum, but in the past he hasgone on record in support of reopening thelandfill as a temporary measure.While several candidates discussed theimportance of improving the climate for smallbusinesses and boosting unemployment,concrete proposals were scarce. Abuzuaiterdiscussed the idea of incentivizing small businesses,but did not elaborate on what specificsteps she would take. Instead, she expressednostalgia for the city’s manufacturing pastwhen employment rolls were fuller and residentswere spending more money. Abrahamhighlighted the city’s rising poverty rate,arguing that it creates urgency for achievingeconomic development. He released a comprehensiveeconomic development plan thatincludes adopting a Sustainability Action Plandeveloped by a citizen council.Moderator Rebecca Klase asked candidatesif the council should adopt the SustainabilityAction Plan, noting that it offers the city $20million in savings. Thompson expressed skepticismabout the plan, while other candidatesducked the question altogether.“There may be $20 million of soft — Ithought it was soft savings — but it wasalso a lot of costs and a lot of burdensomeregulations that we would be placingon businesses and also neighborhoods,”Thompson said. “I want to continue studyingthe sustainable report.”The council voted to accept rather than toapprove the report in January. A number of candidates expressed supportfor enhancing the city’s green space. Hayworthand Abuzuaiter said they favor preservingGreensboro’s tree canopy, with Abraham joiningthem in support of the city’s greenways.Abraham also wants to use public land forcommunity gardens.“There’s an added benefit to all of thisand us keeping our green space clear andfree, is the fact that, number one, there arehealth benefits,” Abuzuaiter said. “Oncethe [Downtown] Greenway is done I thinkyou’re going to see a lot of core neighborhoodsconnect with each other.”Jean Austin Brown warned that her answerwould likely disappoint many in the audience.“I’m just not for that global warming stuff,”Brown said, prompting titters of laughter. “Ijust don’t believe in that.” A couple candidates fielded questions abouthow to address uneven economic development.Thompson argued that the airport on thewestern side of the city will tend to attract bigcompanies such as HondaJet, while the WhiteStreet Landfill in east Greensboro might attractwaste-to-energy facilities. Vaughan expressedconfidence in the east side’s eventual success.Leone scored appreciative laughs with hisappraisal.“If we can develop the east, our economicboom will be unlimited,” he said. “Ithink that’s why I’m so against the landfill.Nobody’s going to bring big business if youhave a dump there. That’s just common sense.The only company that can survive there isprobably Terminix.”Brown’s signature campaign issue is keepingwater rates low. Easter indicated he agreeswith her. “That’s what made me decide to run forcity council,” Brown said. “When the ideawas brought up to raise the water rates, Iwent down to the city council — first timeI’ve ever spoken to the city council. I askedthem: ‘Don’t raise the water rates. Peopleare losing their jobs. Their homes are beingforeclosed on. And what we don’t need ismore taxes.’ And before I sat down, I said,‘If you raise the water rates, I am going torun for city council the next election, and Ihope I get one of your jobs.’”Hayworth took another tack. “In order tocompete with neighboring municipalities, wehave got to have our infrastructure in place,”she said. “We’ve got to have site-ready parcels.We’ve got to be ready so when companiescome to Greensboro, when new businesslooks at Greensboro they don’t have to waitto get the infrastructure in place. Part of that iswater. Had we left the rates the way they were,even if we had a surplus, we could use thatsurplus to work on the infrastructure.” The council voted to increase water rates in2010, but then used the proceeds of a lawsuitsettlement to rescind the hike after six months.On some topics, candidates demonstratedbroad agreement. Vaughan, Johnson andHayworth expressed the sentiment that the cityneeds to regain a focus on good things that arehappening. Vaughan, Thompson and Pridgenagreed that economic development and publicsafety must be top priorities.In what appeared to be a shot atCouncilwoman Mary Rakestraw, Abuzuaitersaid, “If any city council members sits up thereand shuffles papers and looks away while acitizen is standing at that podium, I think theyshould be warned by someone. There shouldbe a sergeant-at-arms or someone becauseevery single citizen has the right to be heardand to be respected by his council member.”Abraham pledged to show respect to citizensthat serve on commissions, contrastingthe cold reception the human relations commissionreceived over the summer when itbrought a resolution in opposition to reopeningthe landfill to council.“I would respect the citizens who serve onthe various commissions and boards that citycouncil appoints people to,” he said. “Thosepeople volunteer a great deal of their time, andthey give of themselves, and they care deeplyabout our city. And when they come to the citycouncil to make a report, it should be listenedto and respected.” Johnson’s opening remarks hit a commontheme among a crop of challengers whowant to see council take a different course. “Igrew up in a time when Greensboro was verydivided, and fought very hard to squash thatdivision,” the 68-year-old former mayor said.“And I don’t ever want to see that happen toGreensboro again.”