Bill Knight, mayoral candidate
Residential address: 214 Ridgeway Drive, 27403
Incumbent or challenger? Challenger
Occupation and employer: Retired certified public accountant
Previous elective experience (including election campaigns): Candidate for at-large council seat in 2007
Civic and volunteer experience (including service on city commissions and boards): Board of directors, Greensboro Opera; Parks & Recreation Commission; board of directors, regional engineering firm; former positions held: president, Hamilton Lakes Lions Club; board of directors, Greensboro Jaycees; executive committee, Greater Greensboro Open Golf Tournament; finance committee, Goodwill Industries; honorable discharge, US Coast Guard; treasurer, Congressman J. Howard Coble
Education (highest degree attained and name of institution): Bachelor of arts in economics, UNCG
Party registration: Republican (nonpartisan race)
What is the town of your birth? Leaksville
What year did you move here? 1952
Paid consultants working on your campaign: Bill Burckley
Your campaign manager: Self
Your treasurer: Beth Hemphill
Remarks from Oct. 8 candidate forum:
I am Bill Knight and I am a candidate for mayor of Greensboro. I was an at-large candidate for city council two years ago. I’ve not held elective office before. I’ve lived in Greensboro most of my life. I was born in Leaksville — Eden, as you may know it now — and came to Greensboro in junior high school, and attended high school in Greensboro. I attended Guilford and UNCG. I was one of the first male graduates out of UNCG. I built a business in Greensboro, had a good career, raised a family and am happy to call it home; it’s been my home. During my working years I was partner in one of the largest CPA firms here. I am now a retired certified public accountant. I’ve been retired five years as of last week. And I’ve enjoyed my retirement doing all the things I guess a retired person should be doing.
But having been here all my life, I’m bothered. I’ve been involved in a number of things in the community, and I intend to continued being involved. I have really been bothered. I have been disturbed by what is going on in city government in the last few years. I want to change that. I have some excellent leadership skills. I have done a lot of work requiring demanding leadership decision-making, orderly process, effective meetings, getting the job done and moving on. I’ve introduced something that is not heard in Greensboro elections — at least I can’t ever recall — I am a fiscal conservative. And certainly with my business background for 40-some years, certainly want to look how the city of Greensboro goes about conducting its fiscal affairs. I’ve been dismayed at the lack of attention to fiscal matters in the city. Greensboro right now is perched at the top of the list of the largest cities in North Carolina with the highest tax rate. I don’t like that. I know we can do something about it. We can look at, first of all, working through — and I’d like to say that we have a new city manager coming. I have not met the gentleman, but I’m looking forward to that. The city manager will be responsible running the departments, holding the department heads accountable. I look forward to working with that gentleman to get these things done. I want to spend a lot of time looking at financial matters in Greensboro. I want to bring the word "business" back to the table in city government. It’s been absent too long. We need to put on a business-friendly face.
I can tell you I continue to have relationships — I’m not working, but I have a lot of contacts in the business community — that is the lifeblood of Greensboro, the business community — to provide resources to do different things that we need to do. We speak of stimulus, we talk about grants, we talk about government spending, but every single penny of that money comes from you and me – the taxes that we pay. And we need to be mindful of that. We need to be good stewards of how we spend our money. I am convinced that we can go to work; we can find some reduced expenditures, some waste to reduce expenditures in Greensboro.
The mayor mentioned that they reduced the budget seven and a half million dollars. It’s interesting, that I went to the first budget meeting and the seven and a half million dollars came from the acting city manager. He said there was a shortfall in revenue of seven and a half million dollars. About two months prior to that I recall being at a council meeting. The purpose was to talk about how to finance the purchase of the Canada Dry building on High Point Road. And that was around $7 mil – about the same amount. But when I got there, I found out that it had already been bought even though the financing had not been put in place. The comment that was made was that, "Well, we had extra money." But then two months later we’re short. I want there to be accountability to the citizens of Greensboro. And as mayor I plan to work on that.
We’ve got other areas that we can look at: Policing. In the police department much needs to be done. I seriously believe in my heart that we have got a problem in drugs, gangs and in prostitution. These things get a lot of press. A month ago I watched a History Channel — I’m sure a lot of you look at the History Channel — I looked at the History Channel, and it was an hour-long special on Charlotte and the growth of the gangs from about 2000, 2001 to 2007. I think the gang was called something-Kings. And it was frightening. It slipped up on them. Everybody in Greensboro — everybody deserves to feel safe in their homes, to feel safe in the street, to feel safe in the parks, and we have got to go to work on that. And perhaps a question will come later on, but I think that’s another area.
Economic development: We talked about regionalism. I have gone for the last several years to the Piedmont Triad Partnership’s meeting. You may not know that’s the 12 counties that make up Guilford, Forsyth, Randolph, Davie, Davidson – all the surrounding counties. It’s an effort to present one voice economically. I’ve met the mayor, Allen Joines, of Winston-Salem the last time, John Faircloth from the High Point council, several other leaders from different cities, but I don’t see anybody from Greensboro at those meetings. And as the mayor, one of the first things I plan to do is make a trip to start talking to these other mayors. And let’s see what’s going on. We’ve got a long way to go. The unemployment figure is beaten to death, but we just had a correctional facility close in McLeansville at several hundred jobs – I think I’m correct on that. Dell: 900 jobs. I think there’s an announcement of hopefully something new coming to Greensboro, but it’s going to be tough.
I have got some experience. I have got some ideas. And I will be a full-time mayor. Sixty- and 70-hour weeks, any CPA can tell you, is not unheard of. I will be happy to do that, and in my next two years try to make a difference. I promise you that if I’m elected – you have a real choice; it’s a choice that you can make. If I am elected, I am going to be pushing to make some changes. I promise you that. Thank you very much, and hope you’ll consider me.
How would you suggest avoiding the fractious confrontations that frequently disrupt our city council meetings?
The first rule in organized meetings is something called Robert’s Rules of Order. I’m very familiar with that. I’ve been to a number of council meetings over the past few years and, like many of us, I also watch my council meetings. I’ve been somewhat dismayed to hear someone at one time say, "What if we suspended Robert’s Rules?" I’ve heard someone else say, "We’re dysfunctional." I’ve heard someone else say, "We can’t get anything done." Everybody there — nine individuals on council, including the mayor – everyone has a chance to be heard. You come to the meetings prepared, you do your homework, you read your materials. As some of you know, sometimes the agenda can be rather lengthy. And that’s another thing I want to look at: How can we make the meetings more functional, get more done. You don’t have to be there five hours, four hours. But we respect — everybody has an opinion. Because we are elected individuals, we come from different backgrounds, different perspectives, but we can all respect each one’s turn to speak on issues and go around. I’ve had experience with this — go around the table. Everybody gets the chance to speak. And if someone wants to make a motion a motion will be made and the motion will be seconded. And then there will be a vote. And the decision is made. The discussion is over. You move on. And it’s not hard to conduct an orderly meeting. And I can do that, and I shall. Thank you.
What is the best thing that’s happened in Greensboro in the last two years?
I’m trying to think. A lot of things have happened…. We have continued to see our educational system — and this is not city government but it is part of the city — pull together our community colleges. Don Cameron is doing a great job at GTCC… but they’re graduating a thousand students. I think that’s a positive.
Downtown is a pretty alive place now. I grew up in Greensboro, worked in downtown. I first drove a delivery truck. I don’t know if any of you remember the old Montgomery Wards down near where Triad theater is — Triad Stage. I worked there, sold linoleum and then sold tires. But a lot has happened. But downtown — if you go downtown right now — there are some issues, certainly — but it’s a good place. It’s very much alive. The new park is a big plus for downtown, and it’s something that we can point to with pride. I spent a lot of time downtown over the years. I had a lot of friends in the police department. I used to be a runner, a long-distance runner, and we ran there. So I’ve seen a lot going on in downtown. The civil rights museum, if it’s on schedule, it will open with some fanfare, I believe it’s February first. I think that’s correct. And I think [Yvonne Johnson] said a couple years ago, if I recall, that it will be a real economic boost to downtown when that happens. That’s a good thing. It will help our airport. It will help our hotels. And it will help retail. Great.
What’s the worst thing to happen to Greensboro in the last two years?
I agree on policing; it’s a big area. I’d also put right at the top what’s happened in the economy. As of June, I think ESC — Employment Security Commission — had placed the Triad’s unemployment rate at about 11.6 percent. That’s a lot. You’re talking about one in seven or one in eight people being unemployed. That is the engine that drives good employment, good jobs. These other issues come behind. But the ability to solve that is going to be the great challenge of our time. It’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of cooperation. And government can’t do it, but it can certainly be a partner to it. And I guess that’s all I’ve got to say.
I want to ask each candidate about their very broad, vague campaign slogans. For Mr. Knight, what does he mean by "go forward, Greensboro"? And how does he reconcile that with ongoing references to David Wray and other issues that are several years old? For Ms. Johnson, what exactly does she mean by "positive leadership"? Does that mean having a good attitude and trying to make everyone happy or does that mean taking decisive action to accomplish things even if it makes people uncomfortable?
My slogan, if you will, is just something I came up with, I guess, sometime in the early summer: Go forward, Greensboro. And what I had in mind is one of the things that I had in mind is, Greensboro, we’ve been looking back. We spend a lot of time looking back and not forward, in any number of ways. We’ve already talked about a couple of them. You mentioned David Wray. I have to be very frank with you…. I’ve been very fond of the Greensboro Police Department for many, many years. A very professional organization. My best friend of many years died last February. He was deputy chief through 1998, and in line to become chief at that time. So I’ve followed the police department closely. When the matter around David Wray came up I spent a lot of time in the library doing research, and I found that he had a rather exemplary record of accomplishment. And that was not said. But anyway, where we are today, I went to the council in the spring, and I asked the council to help the city move forward by following the policy of the city of Greensboro — a policy adopted by the council in the early eighties — that the city would pay the legal costs of city employees sued in the course of their work. And I asked that the city honor that policy for not only David Wray, but several others. No criminal charges have stood. And one officer was charged for obstructing a personal computer. But I think it would be good to honor the integrity of the city of Greensboro. I also ask that the city offer an apology to Mr. Wray and his associates for what they’ve been through. As far as my "go forward," I think if we could do that we could really begin to move forward.
House Bill 2, passed by the General Assembly this summer, will make all restaurants and bars in North Carolina smoke-free on Jan. 2, 2010. Also, starting on that date local governments will have the opportunity to create restrictions on smoking in public places within their areas. Would you support eliminating smoking in workplaces and other places in Greensboro?
I guess I’m a reformed smoker. I smoked when I was a teenager and when I was in the service and for a few years after. But I am many, many years beyond that, and I’m glad I don’t smoke anymore. I have no problem — I think public places, such as city government, a policy of no smoking is okay. In restaurants — and we have that in ordinance, that separates smoking areas from non-smoking areas. Is that true today? I’m thinking, did we not do that some years ago? [Audience member interjects: In 1989. And starting January second, there will be no smoking in restaurants and bars in all of North Carolina.] And I have no problem with that. Going beyond that into other forms of workplace, I won’t talk about that, especially when you take employers and employees.
Are there any aspects of the proposed Land Development Ordinance that you particularly support or disagree with?
I don’t know.
What is the solution to lounges, bars, nightclubs and drinking establishments located in or near existing neighborhoods and disturbing the peaceful quality of life that existed beforehand. Grandfathered establishments can only rarely and then with great difficulty be shut down once they are open. What would you propose to do?
We can certainly — and I agree with much of what the mayor says — we can take a tough line on unnecessary, unneeded, unsightly — we can look at that through closer policing. Certainly you’ve got surveillance. I think our police department one of the things that interests me is the intelligence-gathering ability, which has somewhat been compromised. And we can look, and take a harder look at — maybe we can issue an annual permit. I’m not at all opposed to making it tougher for somebody that I don’t like that’s doing something hurtful to neighborhoods. That’s a good thing. And if somebody wants to sue me, sue me. We’ll fight it out.
What is the strength of your commitment to conserving older neighborhoods in the northwest quadrant of the city that offer affordable housing?
When we talk about northwest, we’re not talking about newly annexed, or are we? [Moderator: "I’m not sure what the person who asked the question had in mind; it just says ‘the northwest quadrant.’"] [Audience member: "Probably anyplace northwest of Elm."] Well, I live in an older neighborhood. My house is 70 years old. And I’m all about preserving older neighborhoods…. I feel very strongly about that. I want to make sure that the people who live there and pay taxes will be protected. I want to be sure that as housing spreads that that doesn’t mean that we’re going to have crime following it. But I — I don’t know if I got the question right.
What solution do you favor in redeveloping the fringe areas of older neighborhoods where there are currently rental houses in deteriorating condition due primarily to rapidly increasing motor traffic, along with commercial expansion and redevelopment in the area. Do you think that planning new parks and green space in these highly visible yet vulnerable street corridors such as the Lawndale corridor near Cornwallis Drive could turn an eyesore into an asset for the city?
I want to have been to a number of council meetings. Zoning is a constant issue there. I want to hear from both sides, whether they’re in favor or opposed to development. The real-estate community, the development community, they certainly — they’re one of our largest employers, by the way. I want them to be heard. We certainly want to have a scenic and attractive city, but we don’t want to be onerous and imposing burden on any party in making that happen. That’s it.
A national publication ranked Greensboro as one of the most vacant cities in the country in terms of commercial vacancies. Does this validate the proposition that we’ve allowed too much development in our city over the last 20 years at the expense of neighborhoods?
No, not necessarily. Over the last 20 years — and I’ve lived in Greensboro just about all my life — we have seen a great erosion of our manufacturing base. A lot of this is global economy, world decisions, national decisions, treaty agreements. We’ve seen our textile base, our furniture base, a number of others go away. They left behind empty buildings, empty spaces. And there have been attempts — our problem is to start doing the hard work to start rebuilding our economy. We can talk about infill, we can talk about sprawl, whichever, but we have got to get energized. I want to see us regionally go to work. And whatever the new Greensboro’s going to be, the old is not going to come back again; it’s just not going to be that way. We’ve got the various sciences. We’ve got the transportation and logistics. But a lot of other cities are experiencing the same thing. We’re going to have to work very, very hard to bring it back.
Will you support the long-range plan that has been developed for the Lee Street/High Point Road corridor?
Clarification. High Point Road: Are we talking about High Point Road going west on Lee Street or going down 85…. Lee Street has been one of the major thoroughfares through Greensboro all my life. It certainly needs some upgrading. Government is not going to be the entire solution. We can’t throw money to it. We’ve got to work with the business community — all the business community — to try to find solutions. One of the areas I’m going to look if I become mayor is I want to get, say a dozen CEOs — and I’m not talking about just the largest CEOs — get them together for about an hour and a half, and let’s do what you call a SWOT analysis real quickly — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats…. High Point Road is a vital corridor, no question about it. I wasn’t aware that the ACC Hall of Champions was there. If they’ve decided to move ahead, that’s a good thing. And that’s a big asset for us, a big draw.
Would you agree that the city has been somewhat irresponsible in enacting ordinances that it does not follow through on enforcing? For instance, the noise ordinance and front-yard parking.
Yes. I do. You know, we went to all these tests for noise. And we went out and we went downtown. We did the noise. We went out in a residential community to do the noise thing. And to see what decibel, what was where. And yeah, I think with the priorities and with all of the challenges we have that we have not been diligent about that. If there’s a noise ordinance, which is really a tool, there’s nothing that agitates — well, something that agitates me is to sit at a stoplight and just feel my car rocking, bouncing. And I don’t know if that is music or if it’s something to aggravate me, but I think we can do more. As far as parking in the yards, it’s interesting. Every time there’s a city council election, apparently, there’s kind of an undercurrent of, I guess e-mail now of signs being taken and trashed. And all this stuff is just — I called the planning department to ask them a question, for a clarification. There’s an ordinance about where a candidate can place signs. And I wanted a clarification because we’ve got a lot of signs out. And I wanted to be sure that we were observing the ordinance. And I had a question. I’d seen some signs over on Cone Boulevard in the median down in the part where the creek runs down through there. But my point is in asking the question I went to ask Bob Morgan: If I did something about 15 feet was it okay? The planning department said that they were not enforcing right now. They don’t have the manpower. It’s not that they don’t want to. They said they were busy chasing complaints about people parking in yards.
This question deals with the decision by the interim city manager to reinstate Officer AJ Blake. It’s unprecedented that we have dozens of police officers show up in a council meeting. That should speak volumes. What can we do about city staff colliding in such a destructive way, with the assistant city manager very publicly overriding the action of the chief of police?
That is a regrettable thing. The chief of police makes decisions. The police department is in some ways different from other departments. They deal with different issues that are very often life and death, and have ramifications. We deserve to have the absolute best of the best in our police department. And that goes to the leadership of the department. We’ve got a lot of good people on the streets. The question goes to the leadership, not whether they’re good people or they’re bad people, but if they’re doing the job. Are they having what I call productive policing in how to deal with the issues? And you’ve got to have good people in the department to do that. They need to be accountable. I talked to someone from LAPD from Greensboro recently, and he’s aware, and he agrees with me. You’ve got to be tough. If I understand correctly, our chief will retire in a year or something like that. I would like for the new city manager to start the process of planning for the selection of a new police chief. And to go right to the heart of this, my preference would be from the outside someone like a retired or retiring Marine general or an Army general or an FBI agent, someone properly versed in administration and leadership and effectiveness. I’d like to bring someone in on a five-year assignment. Let’s get things straightened out. At the end of five years we want to have a fresh crop of duly qualified people from within the department so we can resume what used to be the process for picking the best of the best from our own department.
Is there anything else the council should do now to overrule the assistant city manager or should this be the end of it?
And I respect that. Hindsight’s always 20/20. It just struck me when we talk about bad cops the police department has got to be populated with people who command respect and carry out their job. I have to wonder, when it went to the city manager — which is unusual, as far as I know, in Greensboro — for years and years and years, we had a department, or for many years going back at least to Jeter Williamson in the ’50s, that the chief could deal with — an administrative matter came up and he dealt with it; it was done. There are several leading chiefs who can recite examples. But I wonder if the interim city manager had lost confidence in the chief — and I don’t infer. Or, on the other hand, was the chief not aware. And I suspect he wasn’t aware of the rules. He made a decision he felt was right for the department, and I would love to have seen that…. If we’re stuck with it, we’re stuck with it.
Do you believe our police department at this time is adequately staffed in terms of the number of officers that we have working for us?
I can’t really give you a definitive answer. I can certainly say that in talking to a number of acquaintances from law enforcement, the question boils down to, how effectively are you using the people that you have? Are you devoting your time to officers on the street carrying out the job? Staff: Are you assigning officers, detectives at all hours? Are they covering the hot areas? They know where the bad areas are. You’ve got traffic, you’ve got a lot of things going on. But I think you’ve got to look at the effective use – you’ve got to look at how are the jobs the sergeants are doing — in history, sergeants were the feared guys and ladies in the police department. They were the ones who really took the young officers and put the fear into them, that they’ve got to be out in their places doing their jobs. You’ve got to look at that. It goes right back to leadership. I think you can get a lot done. You can get a lot of leverage…. We had a world-class department for a long time. We were the leader — I think it goes back to Chief Williamson in getting the credit. Greensboro has grown in some areas, but if you look at the data, prior to annexation the average response time… in 2003, it was taking about six and three-quarter minutes average response time — response time is the time it takes to respond to some incident. Last year, it was up to 14 minutes. Double, plus. Something is going on there.
A question about the Downtown Greenway: Comment on the city’s decision to disrupt a major project for the entire community and remove public art based on a petition signed by 17 people and the antics of a political candidate who did not survive the primary?
I basically agree with that. If I looked out my window and I saw what has been said going on I would be pretty upset. The residents have got a right to enjoy the neighborhood. I don’t really have much to say. We need to talk about art, it also evolves into questions of safety and just plain decency and the question awhile ago about having disreputable places close to neighborhoods. Well, this park bench may not be like a nightspot. And anybody has a right to enjoy their own home in a decent atmosphere, and also in a safe atmosphere, and feel that they can go outside or their children can go outside and not have some crap going on.
How much of a funding priority do you believe the Downtown Greenway should be for the city?
The bond was $10 or $12 million for one phase. If I recall, the total project is going to be $32, $33 million, I believe, in total. Right now, my concern is where we’re going in our priorities. We need to be focusing on economic issues. Greensboro, as I said earlier — I preach about the tax rate; we have the highest tax rate — I track city budget pretty closely. And over the last five years, this city has been spending about an average 6 percent a year increase in expenditures. During that same five years revenue — the ability to pay for those expenditures — is growing at about two and a half percent. You’ve got two lines that are converging. If we continue to obligate ourselves pretty soon this comes due. Remember, taxpayers have to pay the bill. Bonds are not free. Bonds are money that will be paid by taxpayers in time. We’ve got to be cognizant of where we are. We’re in pretty difficult times right now. We’re not growing our tax base as we would like….
The closing of the Dell plant illustrates the peril of incentives for big businesses. What would you change in the city to keep us from getting ripped off like Winston-Salem did, and to steer incentives to smaller and mid-sized businesses?
I’ve been asked this a number of times. You’ve got to really look at the facts. I would look very skeptically at incentives being a working solution. That doesn’t mean — you never say never. And I want to know before we get into incentives: What’s it going to mean for Greensboro? What control do we have on it? Has the recipient got the obligation to prove, through investment, through jobs, that it’s reached the point, and at some point in time after the fact we give incentives. I would prefer to look at small business. You talk about Winston-Salem and Dell. One of the things I think I said earlier is I want to — I don’t have a plane, but I want to get in my car and go to Winston and see Allen Joines. I want to go see Becky Smothers. And I’m sure as mayor we can talk. We can work regionally — I want to make Greensboro fiscally sound and make it attractive — there area a lot of things we can do to make companies, employers come to Greensboro, look at us favorably because we are really an attractive place to be. We’ve got a lot to offer here. There is nothing wrong with digging in and showing that we are a fiscally responsible city. We’ve got many things to offer…. The story about the mountains to the sea, but we’ve got much to offer. But just pouring money on the table, I don’t like it. It’s just not going to serve our interests. I’m sorry about what happened with Dell. It just goes to show — I think a couple other states have got several other horror stories. There’s another way to get it done, and that is to just dig in and do our homework and make Greensboro as attractive as a Salt Lake City, along with Winston-Salem and High Point.
What is the status of the $10 million bond we passed several years ago for economic development purposes? How is it being used, and do you approve of the manner in which it is being used?
It was approved for economic development, and there are some opportunities coming. I don’t know what the status is right now. But the opportunity to have some government-business partnerships — and we’ve got one area that’s not getting any attention right now, and that’s out in the airport and beyond the airport in that area. And down along 40 there are some possibilities if you look out there and you look at the properties that can be developed for industrial development, these could be used to help that process. Somebody pointed out to me that Volvo — I don’t know whether it’s in the city limits or not, but the Volvo property originally was valued at about $2 million, and today it has a tax base of about $22 million. That just shows what can happen if we use these resources. $10 million was approved? I don’t know what the status is. I’m not privy to that.
What would you do, if elected, to ensure that there is more economic development, specifically in east Greensboro?
Right now there is — I’m real interested in learning — a presentation made to city council by private interests — and probably pretty well funded private interests — to go to the question of waste disposal. But they asked the city to request RFPs from any organization that would do so as to how to effectively deal with that. And at the same time they propose some significant economic development that is particularly in east Greensboro. That’s got my attention. When you’ve got private money — people who are willing to take the risk, to put their neck on the line — I want to hear what they’ve got to say. I grew up in northeast Greensboro, about a mile south of the landfill, as the crow flies. And there was an old Army base, which remains one, when I grew up over there. But there’s no question it needs attention. I have talked about this two years ago as an at-large candidate, that unfortunately I didn’t get much traction. Again, I think it’s an area that we need to look at.
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