District 3 candidates spar over teen curfew

by Jordan Green

The contest for the District 3 seat on Greensboro City Council is shaping up as dogfight. Challenger Jay Ovittore has been nipping at incumbent Zack Matheny’s heels by exploiting fissures of discontent in the district since before the primary, and on Monday night Matheny went on the offensive.

The first skirmish in a candidate forum featuring contenders in all five districts that was hosted by the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress came up over the issue of Greensboro Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy, or RUCO ordinance, which was mothballed this summer based on the city attorney’s interpretation of recent legislation passed by the NC General Assembly.

Matheny staked out a measured stance on the value of the program, on one hand applauding improvements to housing stock while it was in effect and on the other hand suggested it could have been operated in a more targeted fashion.

“I believe in running a government as efficiently as possible for the betterment of the citizens of Greensboro,” Matheny said. “RUCO for eight or nine years that it’s been around has increased our housing stock and has did so mostly in an appropriate manner. It brought us up to where we need to be.

“What the city should is reevaluated RUCO and come out with a RUCO 2.0, meaning that we upgrade and create something more efficient,” he continued. “And the problem I’ve had with it is the city government — and it’s somewhat our fault — we’re re-inspecting the same house over and over again. And the ones that need inspection aren’t getting it.”

Ovittore, who formerly served on the housing committee of the Greensboro Human Relations Commission, positioned himself as a staunch supporter of RUCO, and characterized safe housing as the preeminent human right.

“The fact of the matter is 80 percent of our housing stock over the five-year period that RUCO was in effect was brought up to a standard level — the minimum standard level for housing. And the aspect that nobody talks about is the tax valuation on that house. Just like foreclosures: If you have a foreclosure, the two houses around it lose value. If you have a slumlord with a house between two houses, the two houses around it lose value. So just to keep our tax base up we need to keep our minimum safety requirements for housing.”

Ovittore used part of his time to attack Matheny on the issue. “My opponent, who’s represented by a lot of real estate developers, did a lot of lobbying down in Raleigh this past session to make sure RUCO went away.”

Matheny interrupted: “That’s false.” Ovittore acknowledged the next day that his assertion had been an assumption. Ovittore worked as a consumer lobbyist in Raleigh earlier this year, and encountered Matheny and other members of Greensboro City Council at the NC General Assembly in June. Ovittore said that at the time representatives of the Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition, which has made no secret of its desire to end RUCO, were in Raleigh to speak with lawmakers.

“He’s not basing that on anything factual,” Matheny said later. “It’s a complete lie. There’s nobody that I talked to about RUCO.” Matheny added that he had been at the General Assembly in June with Mayor Bill Knight, Councilman Danny Thompson and Councilman Jim Kee to discuss the city council’s legislative agenda, which was neutral on RUCO, with the Guilford County delegation.

Later in the forum Ovittore took aim at Matheny on the issue of an under-18 downtown curfew that is in force from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., which Matheny championed last year and the council voted to implement. Downtown Greensboro Inc. and a number of major downtown investors associated with the nonprofit pushed for the change. Ovittore said he has talked to different business owners than the one’s who have Matheny’s ear.

“They have a different view of what’s going on downtown,” Ovittore said. “They tell me the teen curfew’s not good for downtown, that it’s not all-inclusive, that if they have teenagers who are 17 that their parents let them work in a restaurant past 11 o’clock, they can’t do that anymore.”

Matheny interrupted again: “That’s just another lie.”

The ordinance approved by council last November provides an exception for persons under 18 who are “engaged in a lawful employment activity, or using a direct route to or from a place of employment.”

Asked about the campaign statement later, Ovittore said some business owners have said they’re confused about the ordinance and afraid they’ll be fined $200 for employing young workers.

“That just shows that Jay doesn’t know the ordinance,” Matheny said.

Matheny and Ovittore have each been speaking with downtown business owners and police officers to gather perspectives to support their respective positions on the curfew.

Katie Southard, owner of the Green Bean coffee house, said the curfew does not affect her business because it closes at 11 p.m. She said she believes it is unfair to 17-year-old college students.

Matheny said he recently met with the captain with command over the central division, Brian James, whom Matheny said expressed a preference for keeping the curfew. Matheny acknowledged that he has become estranged from some of the down town business owners.

“You’ve got some business owners that look like they’re supporting Jay over me,” Matheny said, “and that’s their right.”

Moderator Marsh Prause asked candidates to say what most distinguishes them from their opponents, and Ovittore and Matheny did not hold back.

“I’m not owned and operated by local real estate developers,” Ovittore said. “I want to state that difference right off the bat. I also feel like I can be all-inclusive for our city, represent all types of people. For one, the current District 3 representative implemented a teen curfew, along with the rest of this council, for downtown that was unnecessary, that doesn’t send a good message for our young folks that we want to stay here and go to our colleges. I don’t think government should be parenting; we should be governing. I think it was a bad idea. I’m not going to bring bad ideas to the table. That’s the difference.”

Matheny responded in kind. “You know, campaigning makes you get a little bit on edge,” Matheny said. “I’m going to say one of the main things that I’m different from my opponent is that I’m honest.

You may not agree with what I have to say, but I’m honest. I’ve heard at least three or four just flat-out lies. It’s disappointing.”

Then Matheny pivoted to himself, noting that Ovittore has stated that he filed for the seat so that Matheny would not be able to run unopposed.

“I care about the city of Greensboro,” Matheny said. “That’s why I’m running. I donate my time as a city council person because I love the city that we live in. I want to make our city better. That’s why. That’s what makes us different.”