Deep fissures undermine Greensboro council’s ability to govern

by Jordan Green

The city of Greensboro is a high-performing bureaucracy attached to a nonfunctioning government with the potential to periodically lop of the head of administration in a spasm of fury at its own ineffectiveness.

A two-day retreat scheduled for the purpose of setting the new city council’s priorities and developing a strategy that ended on Dec. 12 went almost an hour over and disintegrated into mutual recrimination over bad blood from the previous council’s tenure.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a peaceful council,” said at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins, as he tried to find his way out of the labyrinthine Center for Creative Leadership building on a wooded campus on the northern outskirts of the city. “You’re going to see a lot of 5-4 votes. The sides have already been drawn.”

As Perkins conceives it, the opposing faction consists of District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade and District 4 Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw, both former Guilford County commissioners who were first elected to the council in 2007 and who led the effort to remove former City Manager Mitchell Johnson, joined by at-large Councilman Danny Thompson and Mayor Bill Knight, who were first elected in November. The four share a governing philosophy of fiscal conservatism.

On the other side, Perkins has made common cause with District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small. The two are veterans of the council: Perkins has served the most years, having first been elected in 1993, although he took a two-year break from 2005 to 2007; Bellamy-Small has served the longest continuous tenure, having been first elected in 2003. District 2 Councilman Jim Kee, who is one of the four new members, shares significant interests with Perkins and Bellamy-Small. Like Bellamy-Small, he represents one of the city’s majority African-American districts.

Like Perkins, he works in the real estate industry. Like both, he speaks passionately about public investment and developing infrastructure on the east side. Perkins said he sees District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny as gravitating to his faction.

The Perkins faction voted with Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan, a new member who previously served from 1997 to 2001, at the end of the Dec. 1 organizational meeting to revisit an 11 th-hour decision by the previous council on the financing of a planned Aquatic Center whose low bid came in at more than $6 million above a $12 million bond approved by the voters. The vote amounted to a defensive maneuver to kill a motion by Thompson to rescind the financing decision altogether.

Guilford County Republican Party Executive Director Tony Wilkins has dubbed Vaughan, who is unaffiliated, as the new council mediator and the council member who will likely wield the deciding vote on many 5-4 decisions.

The 2009 election, which is officially nonpartisan, saw Republicans take a majority of the seats on the nine-person board, and all but one victorious candidate received the services of political consultant Bill Burckley.

And yet Republican members and clients of Burckley find themselves on either side of the split. Wilkins downplayed the notion of emerging voting blocs, although he acknowledged that the new council’s Dec. 1 vote on financing the aquatic center appeared to cleave between members who emphasized fiscal responsibility and those that “are gung ho about public development.”

“I hope it’s too early to predict that,” he said. “Because we have more conservatives on council than ever, I would hope that the voting bloc may not occur.”

Wilkins said emphasizing party affiliation plays to his party’s disadvantage in a city where registered Democrats significantly outnumber their counterparts in the GOP, but he acknowledged that he has encouraged Republicans to get more involved in municipal politics.

“WhenI was elected as executive director of the party one of the mainplatforms I spoke of was for us to be more involved in electingconservative candidates to city council,” Wilkins said. “My involvementmeant helping on campaigns and making phone calls, but not actuallypushing [candidates’] party affiliation.”

Wilkins’advocacy has brought him into conflict with Perkins, whom he differswith on the aquatic center and whom he calls a “RINO,” or a “RepublicanIn Name Only.” (It could be considered an ironic historic reversal that“RINO” was once used by mainstream Republicans allied withAfrican-American citizens in the post- Civil War South as a derisiveterm for elected officials who were registered as Republicans butgoverned according to values more in line with the conservative, whitesupremacist Democratic Party of the day.)

Matheny,like Perkins, is a registered Republican whose support of the currentfinancing plan for the aquatic center and interest in public investmentputs him somewhat at odds with the more conservative members.

Underthe new alignment, there exist both personal lines of goodwill betweenthe emerging factions and secondary fissures within.

“Weneed to be fiscally conservative in these tough economic times; we alsoneed to be compassionate to those who are hurting, to the degree that acity council can be,” said Thompson, a new Republican member who livesin the newly annexed Cardinal neighborhood on the city’s west side. “Wealso need to recognize that we need to build infrastructure that willinvite investment.”

Kee,who won election after promising to resist cost-cutting pressures toreopen the White Street Landfill, expressed appreciation for Thompsonas a lead-in to an appeal for unity during his remarks at the Dec. 1organizational meeting.

“Ihave come to dispel a myth that I hear about the city of Greensboro,”Kee said. “I hear that we are a divided city. Some people see us aseast side, and some people see us as west side. But people outside ofGreensboro simply see us as Greensboro, and we too must see ourselvesas Greensboro. You know, scientists say that the world is round, and Iguess we all can agree with that. If that is true, the moment you starton a journey toward the east, you’re already headed west; you’re justtaking the scenic route.”

The cohesion of Perkins’ faction is undermined by a strained working relationship between Bellamy-Small and Matheny.

Earlyin the second day of the retreat, Bellamy-Small complained that crimein Matheny’s more affluent District 3 attracts more media attention andcommands more police resources than crime in District 1. City ManagerRashad Young assured her that police commanders deploy resources basedon monthly crime trends. Matheny attempted to respond to the charge ofinequity, and Bellamy-Small cut him off, saying, “I’m talking, I’mtalking.”

In outlining their priorities, Bellamy- Small and Matheny also described starkly contrasting visions.

Bellamy-Small’spresentation focused on service enhancements and equitable treatmentfor her working-class, predominantly black constituents. Her detailedlist of considerations included green job creation, strengtheningcommunity watches, supporting a homeless day center and planning fortransit expansion.

Mathenyemphasized streamlining government. He asked the council to considercreating task forces that would, at least in part, be comprised ofbusiness people to recommend ways to reduce the size and cost ofgovernment.

“We’vetalked about garbage for two years, but looking at the cost that wecharge for bringing in garbage we should be making sure that our costis competitive with private industry,” Matheny said, discussing apossible privatization committee. “We’ve talked about privatizing thecoliseum area….”

He also proposed a competition committee.

“Thegoal of city government is not to hire people, but to provide servicesto citizens,” Matheny said. “I would encourage us to pay our employeeson more of an entrepreneurial basis. We’ve got some terrific businessowners, CFOs and CEOs that could serve on a task force.”

Mathenysaid the city of Charlotte was able to realize significant costreductions in the 1990s by incentivizing employee performance.

Similarto Bellamy-Small, Wade has clashed with Matheny over police resources,and those tensions resurfaced during the second day of the retreat.Previously, Wade has complained that downtown, which lies in Matheny’sdistrict, receives an inordinate share of police attention. In 2007,district lines were redrawn so that District 5 was transformed from apie slice that reached into the center city to a crescent arcing aroundthe southwestern rim. Wade pointed out that hers is the only districtthat doesn’t touch the new Downtown Greenway being built by the cityand Action Greensboro.

“Idon’t think citizens in District 5 are too concerned about thegreenway, but they do want speed bumps,” Wade said. “We need toremember that District 5 exists out there.”

Duringthe second day of the retreat, City Manager Young noted a feeling ofintimidation among staff members that has been an unspoken undercurrentduring the past two years. Along with the nine council members, theretreat included senior administrators, the city clerk, the cityattorney, members of the media and a facilitator from the UNC School ofGovernment in Chapel Hill.

“There’sa reason they’re quiet in here and none of them have said anything,”Young said, referring to his staff. “It’s because the relationshipbetween the council and the senior staff has not always been the best.They’ve told me: ‘You’re going to run into that wall, Rashad.’” On thefirst day of the retreat, Young noted that all nine victoriouscandidates emphasized two primary priorities during their campaigns:jobs, economic development and tax base, and crime and public safety.To a slightly lesser extent, they emphasized infrastructure. Over thenext two days, Young and the UNC School of Government facilitator triedto coax ideas out of the council members to develop a strategy aroundthose stated areas of agreement. Instead of a workshop for charting acooperative plan to meet those needs for all citizens, the retreatoften felt like a stage upon which to play out various pettypersonality dramas among the council members.

Muchas they did over the past two years, economic development, job creationand tax-base improvement were largely pushed aside while members arguedabout process. The three issues that are immediate fires requiring thecouncil’s attention — the White Street Landfill, financing of theaquatic center and longstanding racial tension within the policedepartment — were hardly discussed at all.

Oneof the most intractable disputes spilling over from the last council isthe matter of small group meetings. The council voted 5-4 in February2008 to prohibit council members from meeting with staff in groups oftwo or more unless they do so in an official meeting with publicnotice. Perkins and Bellamy- Small contend that the small groupmeetings are essential for council members to make informed policydecisions.

Rakestrawand Wade take the position that the small group meetings were used bythe opposing faction to secretly conceive policy changes and ramthrough votes. Matheny voted with Rakestraw and Wade to discontinue thesmall group sessions in 2008, but appeared to be sympathetic to anargument by Vaughan that the council needs more flexibility to go tostaff with constituent concerns.

Aftera long and unproductive discussion about small group meetings, themeeting disintegrated in acrimony. As the UNC School of Governmentfacilitator tried to tie off some loose ends, Perkins suggested that hemight muster five votes to overturn Mayor Knight’s forthcoming councilappointments if they were not to his liking. When Bellamy-Small statedthat then-Mayor Yvonne Johnson consulted members about what boards andcommissions they would like to be appointed to in 2007, Rakestraw andWade angrily responded that they had not been approached by theprevious mayor about their preferences.

“I feel like I’m being threatened,” Knight said.

Theill will escalated when Kee complained about being seated at the end ofthe dais and only having the benefit of one experienced council membernext to him – that being Rakestraw. He asked Knight if he and Rakestrawcould switch seats.

Bythen, Young had abandoned his post at the front of the assembly and hadplopped into a chair next to the media table. As the council memberstalked over each other in raised voices, Young shook his head.

“I can’t believe this,” he muttered.

Greensboro Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw confers with City Manager Rashad Young during a recent retreat. (photo by Jordan Green)