Councilwoman’s use of bus passes comes under scrutiny: Florence Gatten calls for Dianne Bellamy-Small’s resignation

by Jordan Green

A Greensboro elected official who has become the focus of controversy for her alleged role in leaking a confidential report on the police department, what some consider churlish behavior in claiming city office space and a well-documented run-in with a police officer for an alleged speeding violation has been called out on yet another transgression by a fellow city councilmember: handing out free Greensboro Transit Authority bus passes.

“It came to my attention that my colleague has been passing out a large number of complimentary passes and on investigation I found out that this was the case, and requested the GTA come up with a written policy to stop this from happening,” said at-large Councilwoman Florence Gatten.

For those and other reasons, Gatten said she is calling for Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small’s resignation.

Gatten said Bellamy-Small, who represents District 1 in the southeastern portion of the city, has been requesting and receiving 50 to 100 passes per quarter. Director Libby James said on Monday that she could not confirm that number, and said no cap on the number of passes that could be requested by an elected official had been established. She noted that the transit authority issued about 900 complimentary passes in 2006.

James said in the past the transit authority has made bus passes available to council members to distribute at community events. Bellamy-Small was the only elected official who availed herself of them.

“She had gone to the homeless count, and the quote I heard was, ‘I was nearly mobbed when I told them I had bus passes,'” Gatten said. “I heard about it third-hand, but I investigated it and confirmed it.”

Bellamy-Small did not respond to a faxed interview request or a voicemail message requesting comment on the incident.

If the allegation is true that the council member has been liberally dispensing bus passes, such activity would not be a violation of city policy, said Assistant City Attorney Becky Peterson-Buie. The city of Greensboro has no ordinance on the books pertaining to elected officials’ use of bus passes.

“There’s been nothing done previously that was in violation of the GTA’s practice,” Peterson-Buie said, adding that “there hasn’t been a policy.”

James added that she doesn’t consider Bellamy-Small’s use of the passes to be an abuse of her position.

Gatten’s view, as expressed in a Feb. 22 interview with YES! Weekly, was significantly harsher.

“It’s one of the flagrant abuses,” she said. “I think of the awkward position it puts staff in, not wanting to say no to a representative that determines their budget.”

The transit authority has also given out complimentary passes as a standard business practice to make up for service shortcomings; as a promotional tool, such as the “Dump the Pump” campaign when the city publicly encouraged residents to ride the bus at a time when gas prices were at a peak; and on a one-time basis in batches of 25 to nonprofits that request them for their clients.

At Gatten’s urging, the transit authority’s board of directors will approve a revised policy for distributing complimentary passes at its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 27. James and Peterson confirmed that the board will likely eliminate the use of passes by elected officials and nonprofits, reserving them for the purposes of customer service and promotional events. Gatten said she hopes that the city council will, in turn, approve the new policy at its next meeting on March 6.

“The whole purpose behind the GTA board adopting a policy was so we could be financially responsible in this area,” James said. “We’re facing budgetary constraints and we want to be fiscally responsible. Not because there was any abuse or anything.”

In a press conference at Governmental Plaza on Monday, Gatten called for Bellamy-Small’s resignation, citing specific reasons.

In addition to Bellamy-Small’s alleged misuse of city passes, Gatten pointed to what she called a “lack of respect for the law.” Bellamy-Small was pulled over by a Greensboro police officer for speeding after leaving a city council meeting in early February. Officer MJ Calvert reported to his superiors that Bellamy-Small was driving 15 mph in excess of the posted speed limit, and issued her a verbal warning. The councilwoman has denied that she was speeding while acknowledging that she complained to the police department about the incident. [See sidebar]

Gatten said Bellamy-Small’s attitude is also wanting.

“My ability to tolerate being treated rudely by Dianne Bellamy-Small has been sorely strained,” she said. “She has never been a collaborator or a team player.”

Additionally, Gatten said that Bellamy-Small wastes staff and fellow council members’ time by requesting that staff make copious amounts of copies of maps and other documents, and then by speaking ad nauseam during council meetings.

“Abuse of staff time is a way of life for Dianne Bellamy-Small,” Gatten said. “What a waste. We can’t afford Dianne Bellamy-Small.”

Gatten said that an incident at a recent closed-session city council briefing about a lawsuit filed by retired Deputy Chief Randall Brady against the city was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Legal staff held staggered meetings at 3, 4 and 5 p.m. for council members, Gatten said, and Bellamy-Small appeared at 4:55.

“I have a problem with the expectation that you can be fifty-five minutes late to a meeting and expect staff to brief you,” Gatten said.

Gatten’s final complaint against her fellow councilmember fell under the descriptor of “general belligerence that she exhibits to council and outsiders.”

She said Bellamy-Small grilled HondaJet officials about their commitment to diversity in hiring before the city voted to grant corporate incentives to help persuade the company to locate its headquarters in Greensboro.

“Imagine the sale we were trying to make for Greensboro,” Gatten said, characterizing Bellamy’s questions as “an embarrassment, maybe a deal breaker.”

She added that she hopes the citizens of Greensboro will rise up and demand Bellamy-Small’s resignation and that the city council will develop a code of conduct for itself to prevent future abuses.

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