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Council members and state lawmakers spar over guns and elections

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com

The big showdown between members of Winston-Salem City Council and the county delegation to the state legislature took on partisan contours, sure, but the more prominent features were big government in Raleigh versus home rule in North Carolina’s fifth-largest city.

Robert Clark, the lone Republican, aligned with his Democratic colleagues on the nine-member council on the contentious issues. And the three Democratic lawmakers took a backseat to their Republican counterparts, who hold the majority in Raleigh and thus the better position to deliver on commitments.

The major shootout of a meeting last week in a boardroom at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum took place between Clark and Rep. Debra Conrad, also a Republican, on the issue of who should have authority to regulate firearms in city parks.

The NC General Assembly took authority over guns in parks away from cities and counties in 2011, with the exception of certain recreational “facilities.” City council voted to ban concealed guns in recreational facilities, including athletic fields, recreation centers, swimming pools and greenways. In contrast, the Forsyth County Commission, where Conrad served until she was recently elected to the NC House, voted to allow concealed guns in all county parks, with the exception of Triad Park, whose entrance is located in neighboring Guilford County, and Tanglewood Park, which is prohibited because of its liquor license.

“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,” said Allen Joines, the city’s Democratic mayor.

Clark said the issue comes down to property rights rather than gun rights.

“If the state did come and tell Wells Fargo whether they could outlaw concealed weapons in the bank lobby, I think that’s Wells Fargo’s decision,” he said. “I own a small business. I set up certain areas where you can smoke and where you can’t smoke. I happen to run a machine shop where certain stuff is flammable. I don’t want the state coming in and tell me where I can and cannot smoke in my building.

Nor do I think the state should tell me whether I can or cannot allow firearms. To me, it’s a private-property issue. These parks are owned by the city of Winston-Salem. We should make the decision.”

Conrad responded evenly: “Actually, it’s the citizens of Winston-Salem that own the parks.”

Clark gave voice to a growing sense of resentment among elected leaders in local government.

“To me, it’s kind of like Washington has now migrated down to Raleigh, and they’re going to micromanage us,” he said.

Failing restoration of complete authority over firearms in city parks, council members are seeking clarifying legislation from the NC General Assembly. Joines said the new law has created “a confusing plethora of regulations.” City Attorney Angela Carmon took up the theme.

“The challenge we have is when it comes to athletic fields — if a person is going to bring a concealed handgun, they’re not necessarily going to bring it to or on that athletic field,” she said. “They’re more likely to be standing on the sidelines in the spectator area. But the legislation didn’t necessarily define ‘athletic fields,’ so it left it up the municipalities to define that term.”

She added that the city defines greenways as “active recreation areas” considering their use in foot races, and thus subject to the concealed gun ban.

“I don’t have a problem with clarification,” Conrad responded.

Rep. Donny Lambeth, a freshman Republican who co-chairs the delegation with Democratic Sen. Earline Parmon, projected a soothing presence, but avoided encouraging false hopes.

“That will require a lot of discussion,” he said after the meeting. “I think if there’s any chance that that’s going to be discussed it’s probably along the lines of clarification. If the city’s not willing to go the same route as the county, which [allows concealed guns in all areas of the parks], then we need to provide some clarity to the city, and that might be the way we approach that item.”

Another issue that pits the Democratic-dominated city council against the Republican-controlled General Assembly is a city council election schedule pushed through by Rep. Dale Folwell, Conrad’s predecessor in House District 74, in 2011. The current law moves the city council election from odd years, when it’s the only matter facing voters, to even years when races for Congress, state legislature, county commission and school board crowd the ballot. Under the current law, city council elections will be held this year and new members will serve a threeyear term through 2016. After that, city council elections will be held every four years, falling on the same years that voters choose the president of the United States.

“We did not ask for anything,” Joines said. “We got these changes.”

Parmon characterized Folwell’s bill as “revenge,” and City Manager Lee Garrity noted that Winston-Salem and High Point are the only two municipalities in the state on an even-year election schedule. The legislative change was part of a bill that reverted Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board elections back to partisan affairs following previous legislation sponsored by Parmon and Rep. Larry Womble at the request of Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment, or CHANGE, when the Democrats controlled state government.

But Folwell, who retired from the NC House to launch an unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor last year, said his bill was all about saving taxpayers money.

“They’ve just announced they’re going to raise property taxes again,” Folwell said in an interview. “They should be leading the way of trying to find ways to save money.”

The city budgeted $250,000 to reimburse the county for its last municipal election in 2009, Budget and Evaluation Director Ben Rowe said. On even years the county would still charge the city additional costs for inclusion on the ballot, including for printing and advertising, but Rowe said the city has yet to receive an estimate from the county board of elections.

Clark said he suggested the legislative request because he is worried city council elections will “just get lost at the bottom” of the ballot.

“Voter turnout for local elections is very low,” Councilwoman Molly Leight added. “But those 5 percent of people who come out to vote know the issues, so in a way it’s a self-selecting group of people. If it went to a presidential year or even to a year with Senate and House it’s still going to get lost. The people who come out know the people running for Senate, know the people running for House, but are unaware of local issues.”

Conrad said she would be hesitant to “reverse what Dale did,” adding that she likes that his legislation saved money.

Lambeth expressed willingness to work with the city on the issue, while saying the idea of moving all municipalities across the state to an even-year election schedule holds some appeal.

The city council is also requesting state legislation to help the cashstrapped Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation, or PART, by increasing vehicle rental taxes from 5 to 8 percent. PART provides bus transportation linking the Triad’s three cities, along with outlying counties, and is heavily used by employees of the region’s hospitals and students at its universities.

“We don’t believe it will be detrimental to the rental-car industry,” Joines said.

Conrad noted that the county commission took a different approach.

“We didn’t support asking for a tax increase as the board of commissioners,” she said.

Lambeth said he needs to hear from representatives of the rental-car industry as to what they see as the consequence of a tax hike. He added that if virtually every other regional transportation system in the country operates on an 8 percent tax, he might be swayed to support a rate hike. On the other hand, if most make do with 5 percent, an increase would be a harder sell for him.

But the lawmaker said he would prefer to see major employers step up to close the gap. As the former president of Baptist Hospital, he holds some credibility on the subject.

“I do think it’s creative for the city and the county to go to major employers and ask if they would help cover the cost of PART,” Lambeth said after the meeting. “As I pointed out, I was the president of Baptist Hospital at the time, and I was more than willing to help cover the cost of PART because I recognize that many of my employees use that as a vehicle for coming to work and leaving work. I’m actually more interested in looking at a solution that might involve the corporate support than a tax resolution.”

The two parties found more agreement on some regulatory matters that are potentially costly for the city.

The city is planning to temporarily relocate staff from the Public Safety Center on North Cherry Street to the Alexander Beaty Public Safety Training and Support Center on North Patterson Avenue to allow for renovations of the Public Safety Center. Assistant City Manager Greg Turner told legislators that occupancy of the temporary facility will trigger a requirement to make improvements to meet building-code standards for withstanding earthquakes after 180 days. The city wants the state to extend temporary occupancy limits so that the city can get in and out of the Beaty facility without making the required upgrades. A resolution by city council states that the “extension will not jeopardize the safety of city personnel.”

Turner said that if the state approves the extension, the project will cost about $30 million; if not, the cost would triple.

“Check,” Conrad said. “Money always talks.”

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