Confusion and miscommunication surrounds resolution against landfill

by Jordan Green

Alum Maxine Bakeman welcomes fellow commissioners Nancy Hoffmann, Abdel Nuriddin and Marikay Abuzuaiter to Bennett College. (photo by Jordan Green)

Giving his final remarks as chair, Abdel Nuriddin told fellow members of the Greensboro Human Relations Commission last week: “This body has become a very, very dynamic instrument.”

Several members have worked anxiously behind the scenes to ensure that a resolution opposing the reopening of the White Street Landfill was read aloud before city council.

That moment came last month just before a narrow majority voted to reopen a limited section of the landfill following a court ruling that the city cannot negotiate a contract for un-permitted sections of the landfill without first holding a public hearing, researching the demographics of nearby residents and considering alternatives.

The task of reading the resolution, three pages in length, fell to Nuriddin, as chair.

Mayor Bill Knight told Nuriddin he had three minutes to speak. Midway through the reading of the resolution, Knight told Nuriddin his time was almost up. Human Relations Commissioner Michael Roberto stood up in the meeting and protested: “This is a human relations report.” The chair also looked upset, and the mayor gave permission to continue.

The 15 members of the commission are appointed by members of city council. Established in 1961 in response to demands by black citizens for equal treatment, the commission’s duties are outlined in the city’s code of ordinances.

The first three duties would seem to be directly relevant to the landfill controversy: “To study and make recommendations concerning problems in any or all fields of human relationship and encourage fair treatment and mutual understanding among all racial and ethnic groups in the city…. To anticipate and discover those practices and customs most likely to create animosity and unrest among racial and ethnic groups and by consultation seek a solution as these problems arise or are anticipated…. To make recommendations to the city council designed to promote goodwill and harmony among racial and ethnic groups in the city.”

It was unclear at the time why the resolution had not been given its own place on the agenda. Commission members who were anxious to avoid jeopardizing the resolution declined to explain even on background why it didn’t make the agenda at the time.

The mayor interrupted again and asked Nuriddin how much longer the resolution would take.

“The Commission on Human Relations for the city of Greensboro, based on inconclusive health information related to the White Street Landfill, and based on health concerns and fears among residents living near the landfill, and based on shared perceptions about racial injustice by residents surrounding the landfill as well as other residents throughout the city, recommends that city council not reopen the White Street Landfill until there is further study to determine conclusively the health impact on its residents,” Nuriddin told the council.

“We believe that the impact of this decision is citywide and that disregard for he health and well-being of one neighborhood or community in our city weakens our entire city body,” Nuriddin concluded. “We are only as healthy, strong and united in a common purpose to make Greensboro the best that it can be as the aggregate of our individual neighborhoods.”

The gallery rang with applause, and but reaction from the dais was muted.

Then the mayor broke the silence. “That’s about 12 minutes, I believe,” he said.

Nuriddin asked District 2 Councilman Jim Kee to make a public comment at the human relations commission’s regular meeting last week to clarify the matter of why the resolution was left off the agenda. The landfill is particularly significant to Kee because it is located in his district.

“I asked the mayor to put you guys on the agenda,” Kee told the commissioners. “The mayor refused.”

Knight said later that he did not recall receiving a request and refusing to allow the item to be on the agenda.

“I did not deny them a place on the agenda,” the mayor said. “I was not asked.”

Knight called Kee to confer, and the two concluded that they had different recollections.

“If Jim said I said it, I probably did,” the mayor said. “I just don’t remember. Given where I am and sometimes I have two or three things going at one time — if I did, I apologize.”

Kee said he made the request in June while the council was deliberating on the budget.

Council members appear to be confused about how the agenda is set or hold conflicting understandings.

“I don’t know how things get on the agenda these days,” said Robbie Perkins, an at-large member.

“I think the mayor is the one who sets the agenda,” Kee said.

“The mayor and the council do not set the agenda,” the mayor said. “The agenda flows up from staff.

“Anytime things can be presented through departments, that would be the most natural way for it to occur,” Knight added. “I don’t spend time every week reviewing agenda requests or approving it. The mayor doesn’t do that. At least this mayor doesn’t.”

Human Relations Director Anthony Wade said he brought up a request from the commission to be placed on the agenda at staff’s agenda prep meeting, and was told “that items are to be placed on the agenda that the council has to act on for their consideration if deemed appropriate.”

“This would have been a report from a committee of the council,” Assistant City Manager Denise Turner Roth said. “It was perceived by the manager as something that would go at the beginning of the meeting, and therefore it would be under the mayor’s direction.”

“We requested to be on the agenda, either one or two council meetings prior to the one where we read it,” Nuriddin said. “We gave a copy to the mayor and we went through our liaison, Jim Kee, to see if we could put it on the agenda. The mayor refused to place it on the agenda.”

The commission is tasked by the council with addressing some of the stickiest of racial issues in a city that is notoriously divided along racial lines. Some might prefer that the commission conduct its studies and then let matters die in quiet obscurity, and the messages brought back to council by the citizen body have not always been embraced.

Members of the human relations commission also said they gave the mayor a written copy of the resolution before it was read.

Knight disputed that statement, too. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve seen it yet,” he said.

Nuriddin said a copy of the resolution was placed in the mayor’s box at city hall weeks before it was read aloud.

“Our impression was that he had gotten a copy of it, he had read it, and then Councilman Kee requested that we be put on the agenda after he read it,” Nuriddin said. “My thinking was he read it and possibly didn’t agree with it, and that’s why he didn’t allow it to be on the agenda.”

One hurdle in getting the resolution passed and read cropped up when Wade cautioned the commission during a meeting in May to proceed carefully because he had been handed a memo from the city attorney’s office only an hour earlier. He told the commissioners he did not have a copy of the memo with him and asked them to come by his office to review it in person because he did not feel comfortable releasing it without express permission from the city attorney.

The memo, written by Associate General Counsel Jamiah Waterman, was released within 24 hours. It said that the commission did not have the authority to investigate the city over its handling of the landfill, but did not address whether the commission was within its rights to make recommendations.

“That was a rather confusing statement, I believe,” Commissioner Marikay Abuzuaiter said in an interview last week. “I brought up the fact that if there was a legal memo that would affect our running the meeting that we should have prior knowledge of it. I got the memo and read it as saying the human relations commission could not investigate or make a complaint against the city. I understand that…. There is nothing in there that says you cannot make a resolution and bring it before the council.”

Members of the human relations commission have struggled to make their work more relevant and accessible to citizens, but the board remains a somewhat obscure outpost in Greensboro’s civic scene.

Last week’s meeting was held at the Global Learning Center on the campus of Bennett College as part of the commission’s effort to bring its meeting out into the community. It took place at 5:30 p.m. instead of the normal time of 11:45 a.m. so that people would have an opportunity to attend after work. Wade said staff intended that the meeting be publicized by the city.

Assistant City Manager Denise Turner Roth said the meeting was initially advertised as taking place at 11:45 a.m. at city council chambers and that a second press release correcting the information had not been sent out by staff. She said the city plans to centralize its information distribution functions to avoid repeating the error. Possibly as a result of the lack of publicity, the audience for the meeting consisted of Kee, former Councilwoman Goldie Wells, two other residents and a reporter.

“What I am concerned about is a perception, if one exists, that there was an effort to suppress information about the meeting,” Roth said. “That’s not the case.”