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Greensboro’s political center bows out: The 2nd retirement of Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan

by Jordan Green

Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan has announced that she will not seek another term on Greensboro City Council. (photo by Jordan Green)

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Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan had her speech for a ceremony to christen the train named the City of Greensboro at the Depot handwritten on a scrap of paper. It consisted of two sentences. Notwithstanding the unnaturally freezing temperature, it’s one of the more appealing parts of the job.

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Vaughan has otherwise made it clear that she doesn’t much care for the job with a recent announcement that she will not be running for reelection next year because of her dissatisfaction with meetings fraught with disagreement and a sense that the body hasn’t accomplished much.

As political retirements go, Vaughan’s stands out for a number of reasons.

It’s her second. In 2001, she relinquished her seat on council after serving three terms so she could give birth to her daughter.

Also, she’s the most popular politician in Greensboro, with the possible exception of Mayor Bill Knight. She carries the title mayor pro tem because she earned the most votes of all the at-large candidates in last year’s election. She’s also often the swing vote on council, and is rare for being trusted by both conservatives and progressives. Her departure signals that what’s left of the center of Greensboro’s political culture is in collapse. Meanwhile, Robbie Perkins, also at-large member of the council, will challenge Knight for the mayor’s seat. The contest between Perkins’ coalition politics — a hybrid constituency of business interests, African Americans and white liberals — and Knight’s conservatism — cultural, fiscal and otherwise — is expected to leave little room for compromise.

Ironically, Vaughan was motivated to run in 2009 because of her dissatisfaction with the lack of decorum on city council. “Dysfunction” was a word used to describe that council, and it has stuck to its successor.

“We waste time in meetings,” Vaughan said.

“Meetings go on way longer than they need to. Our agendas have been relatively short, unfortunately, because the economy is slow. We have very few rezoning items. But I get frustrated with the amount of things we table or continue. I don’t think it’s good to put off decisions that are unpopular.”

The political mood of the city, like that of the nation, is polarized. Greensboro was not always like this. Under the leadership of Mayor Keith Holliday from 1999 to 2007, consensus and civility were hallmarks of this body, even if they might have papered over underlying tensions. On a mechanical level, the most significant change has been the council’s informal policy of not holding small group meetings. In 2008, the practice of staff meeting with small groups of council members to brief them on various matters was discontinued. Newly elected conservatives complained that it allowed the veterans to secretly confer with each other and then spring policy on them before they could get up to speed.

Vaughan is among those who find the smallgroup meetings helpful. On Dec. 7, the council voted to restore the small group meetings with the proviso that they be publicly noticed so that citizens and members of the media can attend. Vaughan said she is hopeful that the change will augur more cohesion.

One example of the mayor pro tem’s frustration is a recent debate over exempting industrial parks on sites that are noncontiguous with the city from sidewalk requirements.

Vaughan took a strong position in favor of sidewalks, but found herself on the short end of the vote.

“Had we discussed the sidewalks in a smallgroup meeting or in a briefing prior to it being on the agenda, it would have been less painful and more efficient,” she said.

Vaughan typically keeps her comments short during council meetings, and eschews the kind of rhetorical point-scoring that is often heard from colleagues Perkins, District 1 Councilwoman Bellamy-Small, District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny and District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade. She sympathizes with Mayor Knight, who has reduced speaking time by citizens by requiring them to appear at the end of the meeting, but has had less success with members of the council.

“I think he’s in a difficult position,” Vaughan said. “I’m not really sure what kind of personality it would take to run a board like this. I know Bill has tried to make changes to the meetings. As a council I don’t think we have found a way to limit extraneous remarks, and I think anyone would be hard pressed.”

Asked to identify something the council took on in the past year for which she takes pride, Vaughan mentioned the budget.

“I think we did take a good, hard look at the budget,” she said. “Staff is on notice that we’re not going to be a rubber stamp.”

The council ended up cutting taxes, but raising water rates.

Vaughan said the budget will be her foremost consideration in the coming year as well.

She expressed caution against cutting spending too dramatically.

“My biggest priority is to have a responsible budget without making irresponsible cuts,” she said. “Given the economy, I know that paying taxes is not a popular thing. We have to make sure we have the revenue to keep the city running. I believe that God helps those who help themselves. In this economy, there are people who are hurting through no fault of their own, and we need to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks or turn to crime.”

At the council’s most recent meeting, Vaughan spoke passionately about the Interactive Resource Center, which came to the council to request a re-allocation of funding for operating expenses. The center provides homeless people with a place to be during the day and an array of services to help them improve their employment prospects. The council ended up voting to fund the center only through February rather than authorizing its full request to cover operating expenses for the next two years.

Vaughan said the discourse revealed through online newspaper and blog comments indicates to her that the public doesn’t fully understand the purpose of the Interactive Resource Center.

“That is a population of people who are looking for work, but may not be employable,” she said. “There are an awful lot of people who are living paycheck to paycheck. I think it is a callous point of view to say that someone who has lost their job is too lazy to work.”

After finishing her term on council, Vaughan plans to refocus her public service on endeavors that have more impact at an individual level.

“I’m interested in doing more non-profit work,” she said. “I’ve been volunteering a lot of time with my daughter’s school. I’d like to do more of that. I’ve been volunteering with Streetwatch. I’d like to do more of that. I would like to get more involved with the IRC.”

Vaughan said she would like to see citizens take more initiative to educate themselves about city government and to show up in larger numbers at candidate forums to vet their prospective representatives.

“I think if people were more engaged maybe they would demand more of their representatives,” she said. “If people were more engaged — and I don’t think that means different people would be elected or different votes would be cast — they would hold their representatives more accountable.”

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