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Greensboro City Council At Large Candidates 2015

by Jeff Sykes

Elections for Greensboro City Council move into their final phases beginning today, now that the Oct. 6 primary has cleared the way for the top two contenders in the mayoral race and the race to find a permanent replacement for Zack Matheny, who resigned his District 3 seat to become head of Downtown Greensboro Inc. this past summer.

There will be heated races in Districts 1,2 and 3 moving toward Nov. 3, but today we take a look at five of the six candidates running for at-large representation. Candidate Brian Hoss did not return multiple messages requesting an interview for this story.

The at-large race pits three veteran incumbents against two political newcomers and a 29-year veteran of the Greensboro Police Department. Incumbents Mike Barber, Marikay Abuzuaiter and Yvonne Johnson are part of the council’s 8-1 supermajority and often take lead roles in the most prominent debates facing the city. Abuzuaiter is known to vote against the supermajority on questions involving large spending issues, often voicing concerns for small business owners or the average citizen who may not benefit from the status quo’s latest pet project.

It’s those pet projects that fuel Marc Ridgill’s campaign. The retired police officer believes the majority is out of touch with the real needs of the city, insulated by a lack of viable political opposition and flush with cash from the city’s wealthiest residents. Grassroots challengers Hoss and Hill bring fresh ideas and a youth perspective to the major issues of the day, including economic development, police/community relations and continued funding for local non-profits, including the often controversial $1.5 million loan city leaders gave the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

What follows are brief introductions to five of the six at-large candidates who responded to our request for interview. We will follow up during the course of the next month to delineate more specific policy positions.

Look for coverage of the race for mayor and the competitive district races in coming issues of YES! Weekly and online at yesweekly.com


SYLVINE HILL

Growing up in East Greensboro, 25-year-old Sylvine Hill said she had to work hard to discover the broader world beyond her community. She wants to work even harder now to help expand the scope of possibilities for people growing up in similar conditions.

Hill received her degree in sociology from UNCG in 2012, after having attended NC A&T State University and WSSU. Hill works as a developmental specialist at a group home in High Point.

“I really want to make Greensboro a greener and more progressive place,” Hill said. “I grew up in the eastern side of Greensboro so I know the particular struggles people on that side of town face.”

Hill is involved with the Community Sustainability Council of Greensboro and attends workshops at the Beloved Community Center. She believes that improving educational opportunities is the first step in creating a more vibrant city.

“I really would love to continue helping more minorities know more about politics, and find ways to educate people,” Hill said. “I think a lot of resources aren’t available for low-income families. There are so many ways in which we could help people without spending a lot on the budget.”

Hill said she’d like to see more coordinated efforts regarding early childhood education.

“If we had better early childhood education programs, people would have broader ideas at a younger age and see the world as a different place.”

The goal would be for minority communities in Greensboro to be exposed more to the world at large. For instance, school provided her the greatest opportunity to get online when she was growing up, Hill said, and she’d like to see increased resources at community libraries.

“I feel like a lot of youth in particular just don’t get a lot of exposure,” she said. “The only way I did is because I tried, I actually put myself out there. When you grow up in that sort of system it is really hard.”

In terms of economic development, Hill said the city needs more hi-tech jobs, especially since NC A&T programs graduate so many highly skilled students. Hill said the city has enough service and manufacturing jobs and needs to recruit more technical and science-based employers.

“I want to see Greensboro more modern. I want to see more jobs here,” Hill said. “I want people to be able to obtain the skills and jobs that can help them in the future, besides just manufacturing and service.”

The lack of jobs that meet the needs of recent graduates drives young people away from Greensboro, she said.

“These jobs are not here,” Hill said. “Some people have to travel to other states to obtain a job in their field. Greensboro has a lot of potential. I think if we have these jobs, this would be a city that people would call home because we could have stability.”

Hill would focus on making Greensboro even greener by focusing on recycling awareness, increasing littering fines, encouraging apartments to increase recycling efforts, and to increase park facilities in the city.

On the significant issues before the last council, Hill has specific views. In particular, she said the International Civil Rights Center and Museum needed to modernize its public relations efforts in order to reach a wider audience. The city gave the museum a $1.5 million forgivable loan last year in order to prevent default on a complex web of tax-credits that financed its construction.

“I think the museum should embrace more modernizing of the overall establishment. It should find new ways to advertise itself,” Hill said. She found it strange that the museum was closed during the National Folk Festival last month, calling it a missed opportunity. The exhibits are geared toward an older crowd and need to be rethought, she said.

“I feel that if they created more exhibits and ideas it would attract people of all ages, that would attract more money and make it more sustainable,” Hill said.

She believes the city should continue to support the museum and that most people want to see the ICRCM succeed. More public input on the museum’s future is needed, Hill said.

Hill said many people are unhappy that the city is spending $22 million to run water infrastructure to a manufacturing site in another county. With our city’s water and sewer infrastructure in dire need of repair, the money could be better spent, she said.

“Improving Greensboro’s infrastructure should be the first priority,” Hill said. “Pretty much everyone is not happy about the decision, but I think that goes back to people not being properly informed. If we found better ways of getting that topic into the community, people could voice their view more when these issues do arise.”


MIKE BARBER

In his first term back on the Greensboro City Council Mike Barber says he’s tried to focus on controlling the size of government growth and improving the level of customer service provided by the city.

Barber, 53, is an attorney by trade, but for the last three years he’s served as executive director of The First Tee of the Triad, a non-profit organization that uses the sport of golf to mentor youth and expose them to the game. Barber said he still handles a few legal matters from time to time, but his focus is on raising his two teenagers and fulfilling his civic duty through public service.

He credits his father, who served in the Sertoma Club, with instilling a commitment to public service in him long ago.

“That always struck me as somewhat of an unspoken responsibility,” Barber said. “This is how I chose to do my community service and I’ve been fortunate to have the support of the community this far.”

Barber served on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners from 2000-2004, including one year as chairman, before being elected to Greensboro City Council in 2005. He served from 2005 to 2009 before deciding to take a sabbatical with his family in Spain.

Since being reelected, Barber said his legal background and ability to work with others to achieve compromise has helped the council achieve several goals.

“If you genuinely want to judge an effective local government and look at the things they’ve accomplished and the issues they’ve addressed, then I think you will find this is one of the best councils you’ve ever had in Greensboro,” Barber said.

Right out of the gate the council tackled what many saw as a broken and ineffective public records policy, Barber said. Previous city administrators had made it cumbersome for the public to request and receive public records from the city. The new public records policy made the process clear to the public, he said. The city dedicated certain staff members to handling public records and posted the results online.

Barber’s primary focus, however, has been on controlling the size and growth of government. A previous attempt in 2007 reduced city payroll by 123 positions. Last year, Barber crafted a policy that would look to eliminate funded but unfilled positions, thereby reducing the growth of city staffing levels. The first policy reduced employment by 14 positions. A second phase reduced payroll by 30 positions and gave the city manager a weekly reporting mechanism to help council monitor staffing levels.

“Our greatest asset in the city is our people, but it’s also the greatest cost,” Barber said. In his view, the culture of local government is to seek constant growth, which he finds illogical. To combat that, he’s focused on reducing city employment levels through natural attrition, such as retirements, and eliminating funded but unfilled positions.

“These types of things have allowed us not to have a tax increase, to not have a significant fee increase and to maintain some consistent water rates,” Barber said.

In addition to the new public records policy and reducing the growth rate of city government, Barber said addressing the Heritage House situation and fighting back against what he calls “misguided legislators” have been key achievements.

“Certainly there has been some overreach and some unnecessary legislation that accomplished absolutely nothing except to cost local government,” Barber said. “Legislatively, it’s very difficult not to interpret our state government as declaring war on cities and urban areas while rewarding a political base in the rural areas.”

If reelected, Barber said he would like to spend the next two years raising the level of customer service the city provides. Creating the most business friendly environment possible could be an effective economic development tool for the city, he said.

Departments such as planning, inspections and zoning need to understand they are the first line of economic development for the city, he said.

“They are the few departments where people show up asking to spend money in our community,” Barber said. “We have to eliminate regulation and shepherd these people to their final permits and final approvals. The answer always needs to be ‘yes.'” With $300-400 million of investment coming to Downtown Greensboro in the next 18 months, Barber said he “wants to ensure that goes smoothly.”

“I think in a very positive way, we will not recognize our downtown,” Barber said. “I think it will be a much more vibrant place, more welcoming to people of all walks of life. The economic stimulus is going to be amazing.”


MARC RIDGILL

In his 29 years as a patrol officer for the Greensboro Police Department, Marc Ridgill believes he’s had more one on one conversations with city residents than all other City Council members combined.

He spent 15 years patrolling a zone as diverse as the city itself. The zone aligned with the Grimsley High School District, Ridgill said, and that served him well when he later served there as the School Resource Officer. His patrol zone included both Asheboro Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive) and Friendly Shopping Center.

Ridgill said his problem solving skills””the ability to find short-term fixes that lead to long-term solutions””developed as a patrol officer make him a strong candidate for an at-large seat on the Greensboro City Council. He’s also had to implement, and live with, council-enacted policies over the years.

“I know what’s worked and what hasn’t worked,” Ridgill said. “I think that familiarity gives you a little more insight into some of the issues.”

His knowledge of the legal process gives him insights into issues such as affordable housing, he said.

The city doesn’t need to focus on condemnations, he said, because it’s an inefficient use of resources.

“The problem is that we don’t have enough code enforcement officers to hold these landlords responsible for keeping up their property,” Ridgill said. It’s better to rehabilitate old homes because they are grandfathered into older ordinances, Ridgill said, making it more affordable to maintain.

“There is a lot more that goes into affordable housing than just going in and condemning everything,” he said. “You have to be familiar with how that process works and I have a legal background.”

Ridgill said people have encouraged him for 20 years to run for council and he finally decided the time was right. In addition to relationships he’s built over the years as a patrol officer, he knows many of the people involved with the Friendly Coalition, either through his church or from his time as SRO at Grimsley. He picked up early momentum at a League of Women Voters forum when he gave succinct answers backed up with facts.

Ridgill said his platform includes being an advocate for city employees, focusing on the trifecta of economic growth/jobs/crime, and what he calls “truth in government.”

“I get tired of hearing political answers,” Ridgill said. “You have to identify the problem, but you also have to admit to the problem before you can fix the problem. Throwing money at something and hoping that it goes away is not always the answer.”

Taxpayers deserve a quantifiable return on investment for spending public money on projects or supporting non-profits in the community, he said.

Ridgill believes that city employees need a stronger voice on the council. Reduced benefits and the elimination of longevity pay hurt the city’s ability to attract and retain the best staff, he said. Performance pay incentives have also been reduced to an almost indiscernible level, such that employees are no longer motivated to exceed minimum standards.

“I will never vote to reduce retirement benefits for city employees,” Ridgill said. “The employees see money going to a museum. They see money going to a performing arts center that hasn’t even broken ground, that was supposed to be privately funded, and all of a sudden ‘well, we have to give them city money before we even break ground.’ They see that. They need a voice. They need somebody to speak up for them.”

Ridgill believes the current 8-1 supermajority on council has made them out of touch with the average citizen in Greensboro. He said it’s evident by council initiatives that focus on downtown and spend public money on controversial projects, such as supporting the International Civil Rights Center and Museum and the Tanger Performing Arts Center. He said that status quo candidates are defending themselves all over town by saying ‘we’re not just about downtown.’ “Well, I don’t see a road being fixed anywhere in town. I just don’t,” Ridgill said. “There’s no grocery stores in East Greensboro. There are things in town that are obviously needs and necessities. Infrastructure is something that has to be a priority for a successful community, period.”

In terms of economic development, Ridgill said the city needs to put more energy into marketing existing commercial property. He feels a Trader Joe’s would be a perfect fit for a site like Golden Gate shopping center. That would help to spread out the economic rehabilitation, and lessen the focus on downtown and East Greensboro.

“It’s not just East Greensboro that is suffering and it’s not just East Greensboro that is being neglected in favor of downtown,” Ridgill said. “There are areas that we could market for businesses to move into that I just don’t think we are doing a good enough job because we are focused on downtown and East Greensboro.”

South Greensboro has issues with food deserts and housing and vacant commercial property, Ridgill said.

He will bring an insider’s perspective to the council, Ridgill said, and advocate for those outside looking in, and those inside looking up.

“I think that I bring such a different perspective that I don’t really need to go negative (on other candidates),” Ridgill said. “People have their opinions of the city council already. I don’t need to add to that opinion.”


MARIKAY ABUZUAITER

Marikay Abuzuaiter gets accused of focusing too much on social issues from time to time, but this second-term at-large council member is involved in many of the most critical infrastructure and economic development issues before the City of Greensboro.

Abuzuaiter often shows a progressive heart but is lead by a common sense frugality learned over the course of her career as a business owner. That’s why she can be found championing causes for the homeless, victims of family violence and the city’s growing international community while also voting against spending public money on a performing arts center and voicing concerns about spending taxpayer money to run city waterlines into a neighboring county.

First elected in 2011, Abuzuaiter said this past council has focused on creating an environment for economic development while improving social conditions for many of our most vulnerable residents.

Getting the Family Justice Center opened this past June was a major milestone, she said. Abuzuaiter worked to bridge the gap between the city and the county on the project, now located on Greene Street, which serves as a one-stop shop for victims of domestic and family violence.

“It wraps all of the services around the victim … all of the services that anyone would have to have can be found in that one spot when the person goes there,” Abuzuaiter said. The center helps victims navigate the multilayered system and prevents them from giving up on the process.

“It’s a massive amount of information that they have to take in when they are so traumatized,” Abuzuaiter said. “It’s something that we in Greensboro and Guilford County have needed for a long time.”

Abuzuaiter serves as liaison to the Human Relations Commission and helps guide the International Advisory Committee. She’s also on the regional transportation board, known as the Greensboro Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, which helps shape local transportation policy and tweak state road projects to suit local priorities.

Helping immigrants and refugees to Greensboro integrate into the local culture and government systems is beneficial to the community, Abuzuaiter said.

The city has focused on outreach efforts and finding ways to incorporate members of the international community into city board and commissions.

“The talents of our immigrants and refugees are something that we need to promote and nurture,” Abuzuaiter said. “They bring their culture to Greensboro and help inform the rest of the public on different cultures that can broaden our knowledge. We have several companies in Greensboro that are very international. It draws in many different facets of the international community. Their ideas are sometimes really phenomenal.”

Abuzuaiter agrees that the city should continue to work on improving economic development in East Greensboro. Her family has owned small businesses there for 30 years, she said, and her children attended Dudley High School.

“Seeing that disparity between east and west Greensboro is something that I would like to hope that we can conquer or make better,” Abuzuaiter said. “I believe this council is doing that.”

Though her base of support began with East Greensboro, Abuzuaiter said she’s worked to expand her support across the city. She believes that’s supported by her second place finishes in precincts across the city.

“It shows that I’ve filtered out through the community and it’s not just in one place,” she said. “I believe that’s what I’m on council for. It’s not my goal to be number one. My goal is to be in the three that can assist and help and I believe the stats show that.”

Abuzuaiter said she’s worked to create an atmosphere for economic growth by focusing on policy subsets such as public safety, infrastructure and marketing.

Abuzuaiter said the police department’s new patrol plan should improve response times and help improve community relations. The city is still sorting out geographical changes to the Neighborhood Oriented Policing program, she said, but that the more concentrated patrol zones are a positive.

She’s chair of the new Public Safety Committee, one of several in the city’s new committee system that replaces monthly work sessions. It’s a process Abuzuaiter opposed at first, but came around to support once it was determined the meetings would be televised.

“I think transparency is huge. That’s one reason I changed my mind,” Abuzuaiter said. “I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to have discussions among our fellow council members. Work sessions had become very lengthy and going off on different topics.”

Abuzuaiter believes that a cross-section of community support is important for someone who wants to represent the city at-large.

“What I hear in some communities, other people will never hear,” Abuzuaiter said. “It’s my job to go and express it to my fellow council members, to express it in public and try to work with departments and the city manager’s officer to solve issues.”


YVONNE JOHNSON

Vision and a commitment to learn something new everyday are just two of the things that Yvonne Johnson says keep her excited to serve as one of Greensboro’s top elected officials. The former mayor has served on the council since 1993, except for a two-year gap from 2009-11.

“I think five to ten years down the line,” Johnson said. “I’ve done that consistently for quite a while. It does pay off, because if you are looking at quality of life and some of the issues that are affecting us”” like economic development, creating jobs, training people””those kinds of things, you have to think and look five to ten years down the line.”

After being defeated in 2009 in her reelection bid for mayor, Johnson took a two-year break from the council before being reelected 2011 as an at-large candidate. Her first-place finish made her mayor protempore again, a position she held from 1999-2005.

Soft spoken but efficient, Johnson is seen as one of Greensboro’s consummate leaders. She was first elected in 1993 on a platform of improving public transportation and affordable housing. Over the years, zoning issues had the steepest learning curve, she said, in addition to becoming well versed in solid waste and infrastructure.

“I felt like I was in school again,” Johnson said of those early years. “I just did what I needed to do to learn as much as I could. I think that’s what a dedicated public servant does. If you want to serve the people, you have to do your homework. When you’re voting, you have to know as much about the issue as you possibly can.”

During the most recent council, Johnson said the city’s accomplishments included shepherding the Union Square Campus project to reality, working on the rehabilitation of the Renaissance Plaza and community co-op grocery store on Phillips Avenue, and continued improvements to the city’s downtown core.

Another accomplishment, the passage of a participatory budgeting program, could lead to increased participation in local government. The program takes existing small-project funds and puts them in a process by which citizens in each council district debate what micro-projects could best enhance the community. The $500,000 cost of the program doesn’t’ change, but a one-time consulting fee to get the project set up has been controversial.

“I really believe that it’s going to get more people involved in their community and making decisions about what they want,” Johnson said. “They will be able to bring proposals. I think it’s important for people””it’s their money, they paid the taxes””to decide what thy want in their community with this money.”

Johnson said the city also looked to make changes to the police review board that would increase public trust in the process. The city asked the state legislature to tweak certain laws that would allow for a more open process, she said, but the General Assembly has not responded.

Johnson remains concerned about poverty and children, and continues to look for ways to create more economic development in areas with high un employment.

She supports the regional megasite initiative to land a major car manufacturer at a site off US 421 in Randolph County. The city has committed to spend $22 million to run water infrastructure to the site. But she also wants to see shovel ready sites in northeast Greensboro, in addition to increased partnerships that could provide job training for basic skills to people desperate for a job.

“The need is so great,” Johnson said. “They could manage three or four (job training centers) across the city, for training in specific areas where people can make livable wages. We’ve got to focus in that direction.” !

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