Greensboro council allows minimum wage initiative to go forward

by Jordan Green

Race tinged the discussion on Dec. 18 as the three African-American members of the Greensboro City Council championed a citizen initiative to raise the minimum wage in the city to $9.36, but four of their white colleagues broke precedent by joining them in support of allowing the initiative to go forward.

Council voted 7-2 to instruct the city clerk to begin the process of certifying the petitions, disregarding an opinion by city legal staff that the petitions were insufficient because the initiative lacked the required number of signatures and because the proposed ordinance would violate the state constitution. Councilman Mike Barber, District 4, and Councilwoman Trudy Wade, District 5, cast the two dissenting votes.

In presentations that ranged from angry to carefully reasoned, supporters offered arguments against the legal department’s two findings of insufficiency and argued that the urgency of addressing poverty should lead the council to take a proactive role and overcome any legal hurdles.

Councilwoman Goldie Wells, District 2, tried to resolve the confusion of some of her fellow council members.

“It seems to me that what’s being asked tonight is for us to accept those signatures,” said Wells, who signed the petition. “I know what the ruling from the attorney was and we got the message from our clerk. Somebody should have known. Somebody should have let them know. It said they have the votes from the last preceding election. I think we can decide what was the last preceding election. To do three weeks before and say that was the last election when they’ve been working on what was told them from ’05, I don’t think that’s fair.”

Mayor Yvonne Johnson, also reported to be a signatory, concurred.

“I agree with you one-hundred percent,” she said. “They were given a process which they honored.”

Among the stumbling blocks was legal staff’s determination that the 25 percent threshold the required of the petitioners should be counted from the 2007 municipal election since the petitions were filed on Dec. 3. The committee’s 6,412 signatures exceeded 25 percent of turnout in 2005, but fell short of 25 percent of turnout in the more recent election, when 75 percent more people went to the polls.

Committee co-chair Jim Boyett told council that the requirements for quantity of signatures and time limitations create confusion.

“At the [county] board of elections they didn’t really intentionally give us any wrong information,” he said. “We said, ‘What do we have to do?’ They said, ‘There are two statutes. One is you’ve got a year, and two, you’ve got to get a certain number of signatures.’ And they gave us the number.”

Barber, a lawyer, conceded that the petitioners had a procedural argument, but voted against the measure anyway.

“I can see the merit of accepting this petition, but I want to squash this with all my might,” he said. “There are ninety thousand reasons why this is a horrific idea. It’s not economically sound on any level.”

Earlier, supporter Debra Compton-Holt had railed against the legal staff’s interpretation.

“We were still under the assumption that we needed 4,900 signatures and we had 6,400,” she said. “I think that if 20,000 people are living in poverty in this city – they’re taxpayers and they’re voters. They are having to work two and sometimes three jobs. If you want to know why crime is going up in this city, that’s one reason why. Because the parents are having to spend all their time on a job and still can’t make ends meet.

“That’s why this issue is so important, and we would not have busted our behinds trying to make this issue work, working day and night, even weekends to get these petitions done, and then you come and tell us that we need 4,000 more signatures,” she continued. “That’s not right. It’s like playing a game. It’s like when we first came up and tried to vote as African Americans and they put a jar of beans or bubble gum and asked us to count it.”

Later, Wells, who is black, said, “This always happens to us.”

Barber asked, “What’s ‘this’ and who’s ‘us’?”

“I’m ‘us.'” Wells replied.

Councilman Robbie Perkins, at-large, expressed a measure of sympathy for the petitioners plight.

“By the letter of the law, they haven’t met the requirements,” he said. “The real problem is when you start making exceptions, you have problems. The problem I have and I think the community has is with the law. We cannot solve this problem by making a variance, but we can solve the problem by asking our legislators to fix the law.”

Assistant City Attorney Terry Wood summed up the confusion about whether council or staff has final authority over validating the petition process.

“Really, it’s just a report to you; it’s not for you to accept or not to accept,” he said. “We work for you and we will do what you direct us to do.”

Later, he expressed the opinion that a decision by the council to uphold the petitions “would likely be challenged in court and you would likely not win.”

Some members of the multiracial coalition supporting the minimum wage increase added the issue of youth to the equation, alongside race. One of them was Isabell Moore, a graduate student who returned to Greensboro after attending Columbia University in New York.

“I chose to come back in 2003 because I love Greensboro,” she said. “I think it’s a wonderful place to live. Some of my friends in New York thought I was crazy for choosing to come back to my hometown, but that’s what I did. And I know there’s a lot of talk recently about retaining young people in Greensboro, and I’m one of those young people. And when I started living here again I was working for seven dollars an hour as a daycare teacher. And when I talked to my friends living in other places sometimes I had to question my decision to come back to this place.”

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