by Jordan Green

Mitchell Johnson’s lawyers preceded him through the glass door from the executive suites at Melvin Municipal Office Building before the March 3 Greensboro City Council as the city manager paused to speak to the private security guard posted at the entrance. Johnson, like almost everybody else, already knew the script of the meeting, in which the split council would vote 5-4 to fire him. The air of spectacle and political bloodsport hung over council chambers, as the body moved through routine business punctuated with isolated volleys over the controversy surrounding the Greensboro Police Department and the manager’s performance that has embroiled the city for more than three years.

Blogger Ben Holder looked triumphant conferring with brothers John and William Hammer, respectively the editor and publisher of The Rhinoceros Times, as the three relished the prospect of their longstanding campaign to oust the manager finally bearing fruit. Police Chief Tim Bellamy turned up later, saying he hoped that his boss would keep his job, and then shrugging his shoulders in acknowledgement of his lack of control over the decision. Bill Knight, a retired accountant, called on council to apologize to David Wray and reimburse officers suspended following the former police chief’s resignation for lost pay. A handful of Johnson’s supporters who had gotten wind of the impending action spoke in the manager’s defense. During council’s closed-session discussion, a reporter commented that the situation was like waiting for a jury verdict, to which the posted security guard quipped, “More like an execution.” Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat, whose closeness with the former city manager was at one time underscored by a standing weekly meeting with Johnson, initiated his removal. After three unsuccessful previous attempts, Groat switched sides to join with the three members of the anti-manager faction on council. District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny followed suit. “It’s really not so much about Mitch,” Groat said after the vote. “This city needs to move on. There are 10 people that are in a really dysfunctional relationship. The rest of us can’t be fired until November…. Basically, I had to ask myself a question. I needed to be behind him 100 percent, or give it up and let it go. We have the split on council, and he’s a lightning rod. He keeps coming up, even if he doesn’t say anything, he’s dragged into every discussion. I have a concern that I have really hurt myself politically, but I feel like I did the right thing.” Groat has twice received the endorsement of the George C. Simkins Jr. Memorial Political Action Committee, or Simkins PAC, which distributes its endorsements in the black community. For at least two hard-line members of the anti-manager faction, the decision to fire Johnson was directly tied to the manager’s handling of the police controversy, and the recent acquittal of Detective Scott Sanders. “It’s been one trumped-up charge after another,” District 4 Councilman Mike Barber said. “I think the Attorney General’s office was heavily influenced by [former City Attorney] Linda Miles’ drama, and I think they were given a lot of exaggerated information. I think the city administration decided what result they wanted and presented the information to get that result, instead of presenting the facts to get justice. The result didn’t come. I think they need to issue a number of apologies and pay a number of back salaries.” At-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw echoed that sentiment from the dais. “Decisions that I will make reflect what I saw in that trial, because it was a lifechanging experience for me personally,” she said. “The decisions I make, I listen to both sides, but I only heard one side before I came to that courtroom. If all the information that we had been seeking was given to us, maybe I would not have had to attend that trial, but I’m glad I did because that was justice and the American way.” A handful of people urged council to retain Johnson. “I came here to be an advocate for him,” said the Rev. Gregory Headen, who presides over the Pulpit Forum, an association of African-American pastors. “The reason is because ofmy experience with him, the transparency he has given us when we meetwith him about controversial issues within our community. We feel thatwe’re being listened to. “I experience this city as having too muchsecrecy about it,” he added. “So many things happen and we don’t knowwhy. And I’m afraid that tonight that might happen again. So Iwanted to comment as a citizen that that would only erode trust alittle bit more. It is very important in a city for citizens to trusttheir city government and their city management. Mitchell Johnson hasdone many things, in my opinion, to restore the some of the trust thatwas lost. I would hope that you would not act in such a way to erodewhatever trust there is.” Julia Blizin, a Summit Avenue resident,cautioned the council against concluding from Sanders’ acquittal provedthat Johnsonhad mismanaged the city. “Because this particular police employee’strial ended in acquittal does not automatically provide reason toblame, dismiss or harangue our current city manager, in public or inprivate session,” she said. “I urge all members of this council toproceed cautiously with the perceived outcome of this trial and whetherthis impacts the city’s management or the management of the entire citystaff. And I urge each of you to be transparent in your workingstogether as a council and to apply caution with your words and yourmotions. Greensboro’s future is in your hands.” Anotherresident who came to speak before council suggested the investigationof Wray’s administration that led to the chief’s resignation had beenunwarranted. “Formal investigations and a recent court trialhave failed to show one shred of evidence that David Wray, or anyonewho served under him, did anything whatsoever in violation of law, cityordinance, police ethical standards, or any other standard ofperformance,” he said. “I call on the city council, at its next meetingto issue a proclamation offering an apology to David Wray and hissubordinate officers for the wrong abetted against them by the city’sinaction and failure to stand with them; and to undertake promptreimbursement for legal expenses incurred as a consequence of suchfailures by the city government to stand by its long-serving employeeswhen it was called for.” After more than an hour, the manager and thenine council members emerged from closed session. Mayor YvonneJohnson, her voice quavering with emotion, read a statement announcingthat Mitchell Johnson was relieved of his duties, and would continue toperform any assignments given to him by the new interim city manager,Bob Morgan,through July 15. The council voted 5 to 4 to terminate MitchellJohnson, with Mayor Johnson, atlarge Councilman Robbie Perkins,District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small and District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells voting in opposition. MitchellJohnson got up from his seat and led a pack of reporters to his office,where he gave a short prepared statement drafted on notebook paper, andthen went home. “I’ve been with the city for 26 and a half years,” hesaid. “I’ve enjoyed every role. I’ll continue to enjoy being with thisorganization. It’s a great group of people. I’ve appreciated thesupport of the employees, and I will be glad to continue in whateverrole they choose for me.” The agreement hammered out between Johnsonand the city allows the former manager to continue receiving his$179,478 salary through July 15, along with a $650 per month carallowance. The city also committed to honoring Johnson’s contract by paying him severance equivalent to six months of salary and benefits. Blogger Ben Holder, a former city employee and native of Greensboro who now lives in Winston-Salem, was among those who took credit for Johnson’s ousting. “Thegoal was for the city to move in a direction that was not filled withcontradictions and lies and the things he and Linda Miles did toseparate the city…. They told lies, they conflated things and theytried to string things together.”

Municipal government in crisis

DespiteJohnson’s termination, none of the political alignments on thepolarized council appear to have shifted. Rakestraw and District 5Councilwoman Trudy Wade campaigned in 2007 on a platform of providingstronger oversight of the manager and received the endorsement of theantimanager Rhinoceros Times, providing voters with reliable cues that they would work for Johnson’s removal. ‘

District3 Councilman Zack Matheny, who cast one of the two decisive votes toremove Johnson, said his decision was not really about the citymanager’s job performance. “Personally, I don’t think, whetherit was Zack Matheny or whoever it was that was hired to be the citymanager and had to take on what was inherited, it would be successful,”Matheny said. “I don’t think he was really given an opportunity to showhis strengths of running the city…. I just want to move on. We hold onto some things, we let things fester in Greensboro. I felt in my heartthat it was time for the city of Greensboro,for our council, for the future of our city — it was time for everybodyto move on.” He added that he “didn’t base my decision on the ninecouncil members holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ in council session.It’s just not going to happen.” Perkins, a staunch supporterof Mitchell Johnson, underscored the sense that, if anything, the citymanager’s removal has left the atmosphere among council members evenmore radioactive. “One group wants us to be a board ofdirectors — and I sit on that group — where we come up with strategies,and give the city manager direction,” he said. “Another group wants tomicromanage the city. Then we’ve got Sandra and Zack, who want to fireMitch, but don’t want to micromanage. Removing Mitch doesn’tchange anything. I don’t think you’ve solved anything other thancreating a circus in the middle of the biggest budget challenge we’vehad in 25 years. Perkins suggested Johnson will continue to bea lightning rod on the divided council until his ultimate departure inJuly, noting that some of his colleagues might assume that the formercity manager will lend his expertise to crafting the city’s annualbudget. Perkins said he would oppose such a move because it wouldconfuse the lines of accountability. For many of Johnson’sdetractors, his removal represents a vindication of former police ChiefDavid Wray, who resigned after being locked out of his office by themanager. Emboldened by their success, they seek an apology andreimbursement of legal costs. It appears unlikely that a majority ofcouncil members would support either of those measures. Asked for his position, Matheny told YES! Weekly: “Not interested.” Groat cast doubt on the possibility of the city issuing an apology to Wray.“We had a hell of a problem saying sorry in the truth andreconciliation process,” she said. “I don’t think it’s likely tohappen.” The desire for vindication of Wray and the uneaseamong residents unsettled by Johnson’s removal has ratcheted uppressure on dual fronts to pressure the council to act with moretransparency. In a closed-session meeting on March 6, council members also discussed North Carolinapersonnel law, which allows the city manager, with support of thecouncil, to release information about a disciplinary action if it isdeemed to be “essential to maintaining public confidence in theadministration of city services” and the state’s criminal investigationstatute stating that criminal investigations and records of criminalintelligence information “may be released by order of a court ofcompetent jurisdiction.” A majority of council members are onrecord as expressing support for releasing additional documents, butafter the closed session meeting details about what records might bereleased remained scant and no official action was taken in opensession. Mayor Johnson said she thought the Risk Management Association report, which formed the basis of Mitchell Johnson’s loss of trust in David Wray, could be released. Shesaid staff was also attempting to get permission from two to threeindividuals to release their personnel files so the city would not beat risk of being sued. Groat said she wanted to release “everythingfrom when the Wray situation began to now.” Rakestraw said, “I want allthe tapes we have on people. I want to know it, and I want everyone toknow it.” “I don’t want there to be any controversy,” Matheny added.“The police department doesn’t want there to be any controversy. Noone wants there to be controversy. Answer any questions. Let everybodysift through the thousands of minutes of tapes and all the boxes ofdocuments.” Barber has called for more transparency, but in a recent statement placed the onus on city administration rather than council. Perkins,meanwhile, said he would not support a broad release of information,but supports the public release of the minutes from the closed sessionportion of the March 3 city council meeting, in which Johnson’s termination was discussed. Asked if he would grant permission, Johnsonsaid on March 6: “I would think so.” “I’d like the tapes to bereleased,” Perkins said. “I think it will give the public a clearpicture of what was really going on with the firing of Mitch.” MayorJohnson, Rakestraw and Matheny indicated they support the proposal, andPerkins said Groat has also signed on. Wells said she was against it,while Bellamy-Small, Barber and Wade did not respond to callsrequesting position. Meanwhile, the city has other pressingmatters to address, including a cashstrapped budget, falling revenuesand hemorrhaging jobs in a recessionary economy. “This isgoing to be completely nonproductive,” Perkins predicted. “What this isgoing to do is bog the council down even further. Somehow we need tofocus on our jobs: Economic development, creating jobs and a tax base.We’re doing a whole lot of nothing on that.” He added that “the councilis not going to come together. The individuals are not going to stopdoing this stuff, and I don’t think based on the makeup of thepersonalities you’re going to have a chance at having a functionalcouncil. That’s a fantasy.” Adding to the instability, whethervoters decide to punish sitting council members in November for theirvote on Johnson’s termination or for failing to cooperate with eachother and handle the people’s business remains to be seen. Likewise, asense of insecurity hangs over members of the staff amid recriminationand a trend toward government downsizing. “They’ve got a plan,and I’m not part of the plan, and I don’t know what they’re thinkingover further cuts,” Perkins said. “Mike Barber has not been quiet abouthis desire to cut staff and get into city government and micromanage.” Holder, who has waged what appears to be a coordinated media campaign alongside The Rhinoceros Times todiscredit members of staff and several police officers, offered a listof people who he believes should be fired alongside Mitchell Johnson.In the Greensboro Police Department, they include Assistant Chief GaryHastings, Capt. Brian James, Lt. James Hinson, Officer Julius Fulmoreand Officer Allen Wallace. Members of city administration onthe list include Engineering & Inspections Director Butch Simmons,Deputy City Attorney Beckie Jo Peterson-Buie. Bellamy-Small was thesole council member on his list. Johnson’s termination has also led torenewed questions about the ousted manager’s handling of former ChiefWray’s resignation, along with scrutiny of various media outlets’reporting on the episode and ensuing controversy.

The Rev. Cardes Brown, pastor of New Light Baptist Church and president of the Greensboro unit of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was one of four people who spoke in defense of the city manager.

“I’ll go with the knowable facts at hand for now,” blogger Roch Smith Jr. wrote in a comment on the YES! Weekly blog.“Among other things, they tell us this undisputed story: Johnson (andothers) made assertions that there was ample evidence that a ‘blackbook’ was used to racially target police officers. Not a single shredof evidence has beenproduced to support that, and the city and the city manager havelegally sworn that they have no evidence to support that claim.” Thecontroversy hinges, in part, on how Johnson characterized concernsraised by black police officers about the use photo lineup books by thespecial intelligence section under Chief Wray.

“Theoften discussed ‘black book’ — which contained pictures of African-American officers, prepared and used in response to victim complaints —was represented as an investigative tool, and the chief described thepossible existence of this sort of document to the city manager, intheory stating that he was unaware of any actual document that fit thedescription provided to the media by black police officers,” Johnsonwrote in a prepared statement following the departure of Wray inJanuary 2006. “However, when the possible existence of the book becameknown to the public, Chief Wray instructed a subordinate to hide andsecure the book and did not inform his superior of its true existenceand actual purpose. This act, and failure to act, caused muchinaccurate information and confusion within the manager’s officer andamong residents of Greensboro.”Tom Phillips, a former council memberwho served on the council that hired Mitchell Johnson and retired in2007, said he would hire Johnson again and recommend him to anyemployer. “These bloggers keep bringing up that Mitch admittedunder oath that he didn’t know exactly how the ‘black book’ was used.He tried to find out, but the people involved wouldn’t talk. They keepbringing this up: ‘He finally admitted.’ He said that from day one. Iknow he told us in closed session.” Johnson’ssupporters on city council argue that whether Wray violated any laws,departmental policies or ethics standards is a moot point; he lost themanager’s trust. “I don’t think the city should apologize to David Wray,”Perkins said. “I think the issue was a conflict between David Wray andDavid Wray’s boss. David Wray’s boss locked him out of his office. Andinstead of apologizing, David Wray quit. Somebody’s the head person,and somebody’s the number-two person. And if you have a lack of trust,the number-one person’s going to prevail.”

Justice Department steps in again

Whilecalls for apology to Wray come forth, and members of council on eitherside of the split call for the city to move on while pledging moretransparency, the US Justice Department has undertaken a review ofdiscrimination claims made by dozens of black police officers. Councilmembers learned of the inquiry in late February from City AttorneyTerry Wood. “They’re going to review all the EEOC claims,” he said.“We’ve been told that they take this type of thing very seriously. Thisis not something that is a cursory deal.” Meanwhile, Rakestraw playeddown the significance of the inquiry. “I have heard that thisis a normal procedure and that when you have so many lawsuits and maybewith the ilk of the EEOC claims, it may be just normal procedure,” shesaid. Groat said the Justice Department is reviewing 20 boxes ofdocuments related to the claims, while Rakestraw said she had heardthat the federal agency might interview various city employees andformer council members. This will be the second time theJustice Department has looked into allegations of wrongdoing in theGreensboro Police Department under the administration of former ChiefDavid Wray. In early 2006, the FBI investigated to determine whethercriminal prosecution was warranted. “We received informationthat a former employee of your agency, David Wray, may have beeninvolved in violating the civil rights of James Hinson,” wrote Mark J.Kappelhoff, section chief of the Justice Department’s criminal section,in a letter to Chief Tim Bellamy in May 2006. “After careful consideration, the criminal section and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of North Carolinahave concluded that the evidence is not sufficient to establish aviolation of the federal criminal civil rights statutes. Accordingly,we have closed our investigation.”

Thirty-nineblack officers have already received permission from the JusticeDepartment to file suit against the city after the Equal EmploymentOpportunity Commission failed to negotiate a settlement between thecity and the officers. The lawsuit alleges that after Wraybecame police chief and Randall Brady became deputy police chief, “theydirected subordinate officers to gather pictures of black officers foruse in lineup books, or other visual aides for the purpose of framingand embarrassing and wrongfully charging black officers with crimes,offenses and violations of both law and police policies” The blackofficers allege that they were investigated by special intelligence,while white officers were investigated by the more formal andaccountable criminal investigation division. Amiel Rossabi, alawyer for Officer Julius Fulmore, said his client recently received aletter from the Justice Department authorizing him to sue the city of Greensborofor discrimination. A previous lawsuit filed by Fulmore against thecity, alleging that two white detectives undertook a plan to spreadlies about him to ruin his reputation and career, was dismissed by aGuilford County superior court judge on grounds of sovereign immunityand statute of limitations. “I don’t know all the possibleoutcomes,” Rossabi said, “but one of the possible outcomes is theDepartment of Justice brings a lawsuit. Another possibility is theDepartment of Justice itself tries to do what the EEOC could not do,and try to reach an agreement.” A spokeswoman for the JusticeDepartment declined to confirm or deny the existence of aninvestigation. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the JusticeDepartment website states that “the Attorney General has authority tobring suit against a state or local government employer where there isreason to believe that a ‘pattern or practice’ of discriminationexists. Generally, these are factually and legally complex cases thatseek to alter an employment practice, such as recruitment, hiring,assignment and promotions.” Handled by the EmploymentLitigation Section under the Civil Rights Division, the website statesthat the federal agency “obtains relief in the form of offers ofemployment, back pay and other equitable relief for individuals whohave been the victims of unlawful employment practices. These casesvery frequently are resolved by consent decree prior to trial.” Rossabisaid he welcomes the inquiry. “The Department of Justice has a lot ofpower,” he said, “and I think on behalf of my client we’re perfectlywilling for the Department of Justice to come in and do what it needsto make sure that this kind of stuff doesn’t happen again.”

Brian Clarey contributed reporting for this story.