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Johnson, most staff will keep jobs as city cuts 49 positions

by Jordan Green

With a bleak economic picture that promises to translate into difficult budget decisions for the Greensboro City Council this spring, the board’s nine members squabbled on April 15 over whether to retain City Manager Mitchell Johnson, who suggested the city could avoid significant layoffs while eliminating 49 positions to save money.

At-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw and District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade made two separate motions to remove Johnson from his position following a closed session meeting in which the manager’s job performance was discussed.

“We’re going to be hiring a number of department heads, including legal and fire, and at some time, parks and recreation,” District 4 Councilman Mike Barber said. “I don’t think there is a city in America that is better prepared to succeed, with HondaJet and FedEx coming in, even though we’re in some very difficult times. We continue to struggle with communication. We’ve had a tough two years. One way or another, we need closure. Somehow we need to mark a moment in time and move on.”

Wade’s motion failed 6-3, garnering support from only Rakestraw and Barber, and the majority approved a motion made by District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small to not terminate Johnson and that future motions regarding personnel issues not be made unless first discussed in closed session.

Bellamy-Small and another African-American councilwoman, Goldie Wells of District 2, joined by at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins, expressed their displeasure at the motion to fire Johnson being brought up. They said the council had planned to go back into closed session to discuss the matter further, and not all members had had a chance to express their opinions.

“I agree that a council member can bring up a motion any time,” Perkins said. “But when it gets to a clear personnel issue, I think you’ve gone over the edge.”

He added that in the past constituents have credited the city council with maintaining civility while deliberations by the Guilford County Commission – where Rakestraw, Wade and Barber have served – have been marked by acrimony and insults.

“This board has decided to stay out of that type of fray, and I hope [constituents] will share their disappointment with this board on the way this was handled,” Perkins said.

Wade suggested there is little hope for resolution of the impasse.

“I think this board is very divided, and we have to try to come together,” she said. “If we keep going into closed session, we’re going to still be divided. We’ll probably be divided a year from now.”

In the midst of the spat, Mitchell Johnson passed a note to Mayor Yvonne Johnson indicating that he was comfortable with the council openly discussing his employment. Just then, Bellamy-Small, whose motion was on the floor, said, “Call the question,” to cut off discussion and bring the matter to a vote. As Barber began to speak, acting City Attorney Becky Jo Peterson-Buie sharply interjected, “Excuse me.” The councilman, a lawyer, forged ahead. “Point of order,” he said. “Even with his waiver, we can’t discuss a personnel matter.” The council pursued the idea no further.

In other action, Wade proposed that the council direct Johnson to develop a “hold-the-line” budget that would keep the tax rate the same and cut whatever spending was necessary to avoid raising taxes.

“The citizens are having to make these same cuts,” she said. “It would behoove us to show them what the impact would be on the city of Greensboro. And they’d also have a better idea what it means to have a tax increase. It gives us a starting point. It’s not the final budget. It’s what you would have to do to keep it there. And the council may want to put who-knows-what in its budget.”

Wade’s motion passed 5 to 4 with at-large Councilwoman Sandra Anderson Groat and District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny – who sometimes vote with the three African-American members and Perkins – siding instead with the three former county commission members.

Opponents of the tax freeze said the notion was impractical because rising fuel prices would increase operating costs for the city’s vehicle fleet, and raised concerns about demand for police services and the need to maintain heating, ventilating and air conditioning in city-owned buildings. “I really think that is just a game,” Wells said of the tax freeze. “I don’t like it at all.”

Barber cited economic hardship as a reason to relieve residents of the tax burden.

“This is truly a year where twenty, thirty dollars is going to make a difference,” he said. “Gas prices are going up. You’ve got recession and inflation happening at the same time.”

The city manager indicated that the city would not be able to pay for 18 additional police officers requested by council without raising taxes.

As part of a heated exchange in a relationship that had previously been marked by outward professional courtesy, Barber told Johnson: “You’re the man. Make it happen.”

Perkins made a motion that the city fully fund the police department’s gang suppression unit, which was created at the council’s direction last summer without allocating additional funding. The resolution passed 7 to 2, with Barber and Rakestraw voting against it.

City government has already begun to scale back in anticipation of strains on the budget. Last December, the council requested that the city manager request spending cuts to pay for a $500,000 supplemental to the police budget to pay for overtime for police officers made in response to a spike in homicides and burglaries. Overall crime was slightly down in January and February, compared to the same period the previous year, but homicides were up 67 percent – from three to five. More alarming, incidents of shooting into occupied properly, commonly known as “drive-bys,” have doubled from 13 to 26. Police attribute most of them to conflicts between two rival Asian gangs, the Tiny Rascals Gang and Boys In Style.

Johnson implemented a hiring freeze to free up funding for the police. The council also voted to direct him to reduce the city’s workforce by 49 positions at that time.

On April 15, Johnson presented a list of 49 positions to be eliminated, including a senior communications manager, a police records administrator, a budget and management analyst, two parking enforcement specialists, a firefighter training officer, four maintenance workers, two solid waste operators, two groundskeepers and a museum gift shop supervisor.

Johnson indicated that as of the end of March the city had 124 vacancies, and that 30 of the 49 positions to be eliminated were already vacant. He suggested that the city could avoid significant layoffs by reassigning most of the remaining 15 employees to other jobs within the city.

After the meeting, Rakestraw said she didn’t poll her fellow council members to see if a majority would vote to fire Johnson before making a motion to do so last week and on another occasion in January. Johnson’s handling of the resignation of police Chief David Wray has been a subtext of strain between him and the three conservative former county commissioners. Rakestraw’s two unsuccessful motions to fire Johnson have sent a clear message to constituents about her feelings on the matter.

As an example of why she remains dissatisfied with Johnson’s job performance, Rakestraw said, “Communication is still a big bugaboo. When I get information from the citizens and the news instead of the manager, that’s a concern for me.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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