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Council members put aside DOJ probe

by Jordan Green

When the Greensboro City Council went into closed session earlier this month to discuss firing its manager, at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins raised an awkward question about a US Justice Department probe into complaints of racial discrimination within the city’s police department.

“We have a manager that basically made a decision to stand up and listen to some African-American police officers’ complaints about the police situation,” Perkins said. “And we’ve got a situation today where we’ve got a new president. And we’ve got a very aggressive attorney general of the United States of America. And that person is very interested in what happened in Greensboro, North Carolina over the last four years.”

Perkins said he wanted the city attorney, Terry Wood, to say whether firing City Manager Mitchell Johnson would put the city in a delicate situation with the Justice Department. The federal agency’s interest in the police department is said to stem from dozens of complaints filed by black police officers with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which led to a lawsuit against the city once they were given permission to do so by the Justice Department. “What type of exposure do we have as a city, as a police department to a DOJ investigation?” Perkins asked. “And is that exposure enhanced or increased by us removing the person that voluntarily opened that investigation up? And my concern is that we have quite a bit of exposure. That that exposure is measured from a credibility standpoint of our community in terms of how we’ll be perceived statewide and nationally, as well as dollar-wise.”’

Mayor Yvonne Johnson worried aloud that discussing the Justice Department probe might be illegal, as the topic hadn’t been publicly announced as a stated reason for the closed session. The city attorney carefully answered the question in a way that left the meaning of his advice open for debate. “We’re trying now to fulfill the Justice Department request, and [Mitchell Johnson] been helpful in saying, ‘Well, you need this, you need that, you need to go here,’” Wood said. “So when you say he is a critical part of that and might somehow affect that, I can only say that it well could.” None of the five members who voted to oust Mitchell Johnson engaged Perkins’ question of whether firing the manager might increase the city’s legal exposure in the Justice Department probe. At-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw, a longtime foe of the ousted manager, dismissed the Justice Department probe as a “courtesy” and a “normal procedure” in recent interviews. Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat, who tipped the balance by withdrawing her support of the manager along with District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny, said later: “The EEOC situation, none of that, as far as Mitch not being there, bothers me.” She added that she didn’t think the vote had risked increasing the city’s legal exposure. District 4 Councilman Mike Barber said in an e-mail on Monday that “one is not significant to the other.” The two other council members who voted to fire the former manager — Matheny and District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade — did not return phone calls for this story. During the closed session, council members Dianne Bellamy-Small and Goldie Wells, who respectively represent districts 1 and 2, repeatedly asked for justifications for Mitchell Johnson’s firing.

“This man has not broken any laws,” Bellamy-Small said. “He has not done anything that shows that he misused his powers, or anything. So I want an answer to that question.” After about 20 minutes had elapsed, Wade said, “I just want to bring Mitch in here, and let’s hear from Mitch and his attorneys. I think the majority of us have already made a decision.” Wade was elected to council in 2007 after campaigning on a platform of increasing the manager’s accountability to council. Voters that were upset about an investigation ordered by Mitchell Johnson to look into allegations of racial profiling within the police department that led to former Chief David Wray’s subsequent resignation correctly read Wade’s campaign promise as a pledge to remove the city manager. Rakestraw, who first ran for council in 2007, also made no secret of her sympathy for Wray. Endorsements by ***The Rhinoceros Times***, which orchestrated the campaign to oust Mitchell Johnson, helped close the deal. In their first year in office, Wade and Rakestraw sought twice to terminate the city manager in attempts that failed to gain a majority vote. Wade offered no explanation for her decision on March 3. “I don’t have anything else to say, and I think that anything I say, or Mary says, or Mike says is going to be a lightning rod, and we don’t feel that we can make any statements really,” she said. Barber also kept quiet during the closed session, despite Bellamy-Small’s and Wells’ repeated requests for justification. In an interview prior to the vote to oust the manager, Barber had tied the decision to Mitchell Johnson’s handling of allegations of racially motivated surveillance of black officers by a white detective under Wray’s command that lead to the chief’s resignation. Following an outside investigation conducted by Raleigh-based

Risk ManagementAssociates that was coordinated by the city’s legal department underformer City Attorney Linda Miles and a police internal investigation,the State Bureau of Investigation launched its own investigation, whichled to indictments against Detective Scott Sanders and Sgt. Tom Fox.Sanders was acquitted by a Guilford County jury last month of a chargeof accessing a government computer, and Special Prosecutor James Comandropped all additional charges against Sanders and Fox. Barber tied theAttorney General’s office’s prosecution to the city manager’s inquiryeven though the two were made separately. “It’s been onetrumped-up charge after another,” Barber said. “I think the AttorneyGeneral’s office was heavily influenced by Linda Miles’ drama, and Ithink they were given a lot of exaggerated information. Ithink the city administration decided what result they wanted andpresented the information to get that result, instead of pursuing thefacts to get justice.” Rakestraw declined to give any reasonsfor firing Mitchell Johnson during the closed session, but has oftensaid she believes the manager lied to her. “He mislead me and outrighttold me that [a] memo that appeared on the cover of ***The RhinocerosTimes*** did not exist,” she elaborated in a recent interview. “Heassured me months before the memo appeared that it did not exist. Thiswas the memo that gave one of the police officers a free pass, thatsaid whatever that police officer did in the past, any of his actionshad been excused or waivered.” The memo was submitted by thecity in a court filing last August in response to a lawsuit filed byAfrican-American officer Lt. James Hinson, alleging that former ChiefWray created problems for him in the department because of his race.Some in Greensboro raised objections to one particular proviso in thememo, which was signed by Hinson and Mitchell Johnson, and approved byLinda Miles in January 2006, before the lieutenant was reinstatedfollowing a six-month suspension. “The city of Greensborofurther agrees to purge from the personnel records of Lt. Hinson anyand all records included therein that the investigation of these eventshas determined to be fraudulent or otherwise inappropriate,” it reads. Askedabout Rakestraw’s assertion that he mislead her, Mitchell Johnson saidsimply: “I disagree with her statement.” Groat and Matheny have saidtheir decision to oust Johnson had nothing to do with his handling ofthe police controversy when allegations of racial profiling surfaced inthe summer of 2005 and Wray resigned the following January. “It really was not about David Wray,” Groat told YES! Weekly. “I worry that people were hurt during David Wray’s administration. [Johnson]didn’t deserve to judged up or down on that decision. People want tosay I’ve seen the light, but that’s not the way it is.” Taking a stabat Bellamy-Small’s question, Matheny said during closed session: “So Itake the David Wray situation, the trials, in my case, what I came to[was] this decision — moving Greensboro forward, looking at thesituation — what do we have, where are we, and what do we have to [doto] move forward? And if I am the chairman of the board or part of theboard that is running the company that has 2,800 employees with abudget of $450 million, what do I need to do? And that’s where we’reat. We’ve got a CEO that, quite frankly, unfortunately, inherited somebad stuff probably four years ago.” Mayor Johnson — who, likeBellamy-Small and Wells, is one of the council’s three African-Americanmembers — kept quiet for most of the meeting, but near the end quietlyvoiced her support for the manager. “I see thingsdifferently,” she said. “I listened to every tape. I read everytranscript. And I think he was in a hell of a position. He was left ina hell of a position. And I think based on what I’ve read andlistened to, he tried to make the decisions he believed were right.” Atthe end of the closed session, Mitchell Johnson appeared and promisedhis employers he would conduct himself professionally after they votedto terminate him, and that he would tell reporters: ‘I’ll be glad tocontinue as the city manager, but this is not the desire of the board,and I certainly respect their collective decision.’” Bellamy-Smalland Wells were the only council members who chose to speak at length toJohnson during the session. “I just need for you to know that I thinkthis stinks, and I want them to know that I think it stinks,”Bellamy-Small said. “Because I think you have jumped through entirelytoo many hoops to try to please this council and the previous council.I know the difficult role that you had when you took this job. Andgranted, probably if it were not for your concern in trying to setthings right — and that’s what you said to me, and I think that’s whatyou said, at least, to the previous council, that you wanted to setthings right because there were things that were happening that shouldnot have happened as far as the police department was concerned.” Wellssaid, “And the thing that has bothered me from the beginning of ourterm this term is the new members have never tried to catch up. Theycame in with ideas, never changed them, never would bring in newinformation to even know what we heard before. Came on with a mindset,kept the mindset and still got the mindset. Remember, the Bible’s right:

‘Whatsoevershall a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’” Wells had earlieralleged that Rakestraw and others opposed to Mitchell Johnson refusedto review materials relevant to the police controversy. “Thepoint that the mayor made was, she heard all the tapes; she figured hedid the right thing,” she said. “You all have refused to listen to anyof those tapes.” Rakestraw responded, “That’s why I went to the trial.” Later, in a phone message to YES! Weekly, she disputed Wells’ version of events. “Mitchduring orientation offered the new city council the opportunity tolisten to the tapes, and I said I wanted to listen with [newly electedmembers] Robbie, Zack, Trudy and me rather than the whole citycouncil,” Rakestraw said. “Mitch never set the meeting up, so I havenot heard the tapes. I have not ever refused to listen to any tape.When Goldie Wells accused me of that, Mike Barber told her she wasconfused.” Mitchell Johnson’s memory tracked with that ofWells. “I was able to get one briefing set up that went into somedepth,” he said. “I felt comfortable that we were able to get some ofthe questions answered. I did spend some time trying to prepare a more thorough briefing. I’d hoped to do a more thorough briefing. I was justunable to get it scheduled. People kept turning me down.” Groat hassaid that she agonized over the decision of whether to fire MitchellJohnson, but ultimately concluded that his leadership was a polarizingelement for the council. “Mitch has become a lightning rodwith us,” she said during the closed session, choking up. “And almostany subject that comes up he is going to be in the middle of it. That’snot fair. Why should he have to worry every day if he’s going to havefive votes to keep him? I would never want to do that, if I were him. Ijust really believe that it’s the right thing. And I think doing whatyou believe in your heart is right is a longer standing thing thanlosing an election or having people mad at you. And I feel really sadabout it, I really do…. I really think it’s right. I’m sorry. I’mfinished. I can’t do it right now.” The city attorney indicated thatregardless of the council’s decision to fire Johnson, the ousted citymanager would still need to be involved in the multiple lawsuits forwhich the city is a defendant, including by giving testimony anddepositions. “Above and beyond that he’s a defendant in one ofthese lawsuits,” Terry Wood said. “And he is working with the city’slawyers. He is going to have to meet with them, counsel with them, tell’em who the witnesses are, tell ’em what he believes the facts to be,whether you agree with them or not.” Council members alluded toparalysis and dysfunction during the closed session, and the topic ofupcoming elections in November briefly surfaced. “Unfortunately,in the case of trying to get us going and move this city forward — andeverybody wants to move this city forward, whether we’re talking about1979, or we’re talking about racial issues with the police department,or whether we’re talking about the city manager, basically where we aretoday — we can’t move forward,” Matheny said. Groat added that shethought Mitchell Johnson has gotten “a raw deal. I think he inheritedsome stuff. We have nine people and a manager. We have the mostdysfunctional situation going on I believe I have ever seen. In myreasoning we’re really not accomplishing anything because we can’t eventalk to each other.” Wells said a vote to remove Johnson wouldmake the council look bad, alluding to the 1979 killing of anti-racistlabor activists by Klansmen and Nazis in the Morningside Homes housingproject, as police failed to intervene, and state and federal juriessubsequently acquitted the killers. In 2005, the city council voted tooppose a grassroots truth and reconciliation process that examined theincident. “We’ll look worse,” Wells said. “Because the peopleare still talking about 1979. They know we messed up on that. And itwill come up again. And we’re trying to get out of that image.” Later,Wells, who has announced that she will not seek reelection this year,challenged Groat. “You said that he had been a lightning rod,” shesaid. “I want to know: If he leaves or if he stays, do you think it’sgoing to make any difference?” Groat responded, “I’ll tell you what: Ifit doesn’t, shame on the council. We all ought to be thrown out.” Wellsretorted, “We ought to get thrown out right now. You don’t need to waitfor that. We haven’t done a thing but fuss.” Days after MitchellJohnson’s firing, a backlash has already materialized to challenge theformer city manager’s opponents. A new political actioncommittee called Stand Up Greensboro has unveiled an ad on the internetthat features a photograph of Rakestraw, a registered Republican, withformer Republican US senator Elizabeth Dole that says, “Dole was wrongfor Greensboro… she is too. Say ‘no’ to Mary Rakestraw.” Thead charges, “Mary Rakestraw has spent the last two years on the citycouncil pushing an obstructionist agenda. She has attempted to expandthe city council’s power and micromanage the city, bringing councilbusiness to a halt and undermining Greensboro’s career publicservants.” Founded by a second-year law student at NC CentralUniversity in Durham named Andrew Murphy, who grew up in Greensboro,the committee’s website lists of slate of positions, including reiningin sprawl, investing in public transportation, providing tax andfinancial incentives to attract economic development, celebratingracial and lifestyle diversity, and doing more to retain students andyoung professionals. Murphy said he plans to convene district and college liaisons to hold forums that would decide which candidates to endorse. Murphysaid he discussed the possibility of supporting Marikay Abuzuaiter, whoplans to run for an at-large seat on council this year, with thecandidate, but ultimately sent her a letter “saying I could no longerbe directly involved in her campaign” once the committee’s website waslaunched. Abuzuaiter came within 623 votes of winning the seatnow held by Rakestraw in the last election. The committee’s foundervolunteered on the campaign of Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison, theGuilford County delegation’s most progressive member, in 2006. Hedismissed criticism bubbling up from the conservative blogosphere thathis effort was a thinly veiled effort to elect Democratic candidates tothe nonpartisan city council. “I really want to highlightissues that can be nonpartisan,” he said. “I think smart growth,investment in public transportation, creating a vibrant and robusteconomy and wanting professionalism in our elected leaders can benonpartisan issues. There are Democrats on the city council that mightfind the PAC’s position on smart growth and other things a littlediscomforting because of the support of the real-estate industry forthem in the past.” Rakestraw dismissed the notion that the city hasbeen hobbled by the controversy over Mitchell Johnson. “Didthe trash get picked up today?” she asked. “Did people get their waterbill? Did the police make any arrests today? I don’t think anything hasbeen paralyzed. You can’t paralyze the city over one employee. Anyonewho says that obviously doesn’t understand the function of the city.”The councilwoman’s statement made the same points as an editorialpublished in The Rhinoceros Times on March 12. “I said I wouldnot support increasing taxes,” she added, “ and I haven’t done anythingto do that. We should get good value for our tax money. I wanted torestore trust in the public’s mind involving the city council and thepolice department, and I’ve been doing that. I think I’ve been fair ineverything I’ve done.” Murphy suggested that Groat and Matheny’s voteto oust Mitchell Johnson amounted to appeasement. “I find it alittle disheartening that the city council spent the last two yearsembroiled with this controversy, when Mary Rakestraw and Trudy Wadeknew they wanted to get rid of the city manager. Part of the problem Isee with this Mitchell Johnson and David Wray deal is that some peoplewho supported this decision to fire Mitchell Johnson think that doingthat would make the council more cohesive, and make them more able towork together. It’s only going to embolden those who pushed forJohnson’s dismissal to obstruct crucial city business and push forother things they want, when all council members should come to thetable with an open mindset.”

A DIVIDED COUNCIL: At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins (left)and District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells (second from left) voted against a motion to dismiss City Manager Mitchell Johnson, while District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny and at-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw supported the move. (photos by Jordan Green)

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