Minimum wage initiative killed in council

by Jordan Green

The Greensboro City Council stamped out an initiative to raise the city’s minimum wage to $9.36 at its Jan. 15 meeting by rescinding a vote last month that essentially called on the city clerk to green-light the petitions by counting them against the 2005 election instead of the 2007 election, when turnout surged.

The 5-3 vote in which Mayor Yvonne Johnson and her two fellow African-American council members found themselves overwhelmed by the white majority mirrored a similar vote in April 2000 to defeat a living wage ordinance. That vote, in which white council members Keith Holliday, Don Vaughan, Nancy Vaughan, Tom Phillips, Robbie Perkins and Sandy Carmany prevailed over Johnson and Earl Jones, also broke down along racial lines.

Assistant City Attorney Becky Jo Peterson-Buie said the Guilford County Board of Elections had determined that signatures collected by the Greensboro Minimum Wage Committee fell short of 25 percent of the total turnout for the 2005 election, and they had been given until Jan. 18 to collect additional signatures to make up the difference. Before the council short-circuited the process, the committee had the opportunity to collect the sufficient number of signatures, put the measure before the council for a vote, and failing council support, get the initiative on the ballot as a referendum.

At-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw, who voted in support of the initiative in December, made the motion to reconsider it. She was joined by Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat, District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny, District 4 Councilman Mike Barber and District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade. At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins was absent.

Barber, who was unable to make the motion to reconsider because he opposed the original motion, asked if there were any other takers.

“I’ll make that motion, Mr. Barber,” said Rakestraw.

Before withdrawing her support for the initiative Groat indicated she might like more time to study it.

“The only city that I can remember for sure is Albuquerque, New Mexico that has done this, that has increased to a living wage,” she said. “And I have been intending to contact their mayor or city manager and maybe a couple of businesses because I really would like to get a sense of how it is working there. Because we really have nothing to go on of how it will affect our businesses and how it will affect – will it shut off a certain number of employees or will it work and make everybody’s life better?”

Citing opposition from the Greensboro Merchants Association and several small business owners, Barber argued that allowing the minimum wage initiative to go on the ballot would give the city a public-relations black eye.

“For most of 2008, we are going to be advertising that Greensboro wants to be an island of unfriendliness to small business,” he said.

Councilwoman Goldie Wells, who represents majority black District 2, angrily confronted Barber, alluding in her comments to a complaint leveled by the committee suggesting that a recommendation by the city’s legal department to count the petitions against the 2007 election instead of the 2005 election fit a pattern of racial trickery.

“Look at me, Mike,” she said. “This is what I’m talking about when I say, ‘The rules change when it comes to us.'”

Barber, in turn, criticized lawyer Jim Boyett, co-chair of the committee, for fumbling the initiative.

“There was an attorney that guided them through this process and it was not timely,” he said. “And they missed the deadline. There was a new election and the numbers changed.”

In an angry denunciation, minimum wage committee co-chair Marilyn Baird warned that council members who blocked the initiative would pay when they come up for reelection. Baird indicated on Jan. 18 that the committee had collected enough signatures to meet the 2005 threshold, and planned to present them to City Clerk Juanita Cooper that day. She vowed that the supporters of the minimum wage ordinance would be at the next city council meeting in force to demand that the initiative be considered.

She singled Barber out for especially harsh criticism, saying that when he was the president of the Guilford County Democratic Party in the 1990s, she had made phone calls on his behalf as a union member, and that his maneuvering to defeat the minimum wage initiative betrayed working people who helped him get elected to political office.

“Mike Barber was the one working behind the scenes who two weeks ago was seeking someone to make a motion to rescind, and Mary Rakestraw did just that.”

The three others who helped defeat the initiative came in for particular flavors of opprobrium.

“Zack Matheny I didn’t talk to so I don’t know how he feels, but what he’s telling me with his vote is that he’s no better and that he doesn’t care,” Baird said. “Trudy Wade – we’re not surprised about Trudy because she never had the backing of working people. Sandra Anderson Groat, who is one of the worst ones, who has made her fortune off of low-income and low-wealth citizens, should be ashamed.”

Groat, a homebuilder, specializes in affordable housing in east Greensboro.

Baird indicated that she does not see council’s Jan. 15 vote as the end of the line.

“I hope that there is some room for discussion,” she said. “We will be at the next council meeting. The citizens have spoken. We’re not just going to sit back and let people like Mike and Mary run this city because they’re all connected with big business. We’re going to take our city back and let them know that we’re the city and we’re the taxpayers.”

Call for city action to exclude undocumented labor

Ron Tuck, a sheetrock and painting subcontractor, made a separate entreaty for municipal government intervention to help citizens who are economically struggling. Immaculately dressed in a suit jacket, black bowtie and white gloves, Tuck showed up to express concerns about a council decision to approve a plan to award $1.1 million to private developers and nonprofits for the purpose of building affordable housing in southern and eastern portions of Greensboro. Developers, including, Beacon Management Corp., George Carr, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Greensboro, Durham-based Self-Help Community Development Corp. and Housing Greensboro Inc. will build housing that will be sold to homeowners who earn between 40 and 80 percent of area median income.

Much of the housing development money goes to below-market loans, but some, as with $57,205 allocated for the Housing Greensboro nonprofit to cover operational costs of low-income home repairs and housing rehabilitation, is distributed as a direct grant, said Cyndi Blue of the Housing & Community Development Department.

The council voted to approve $291,434 in city funds to complete $1.1 million pool for low-income housing development. Cyndi Blue of the Housing & Community Development Department, said the money replaced federal grant money expended in 2002 for the King’s Landing project, in which nonprofit Project Homestead was contracted to build affordable housing. When Project Homestead went bankrupt in 2003, the US Department of Housing & Urban Development required the city to either return the funds or replace them.

Tuck towered over Housing & Community Development Director Andy Scott in the back of council chambers, after Mayor Johnson asked the department head to speak with the subcontractor. Tuck had complained that African-American business owners like him have been passed over on city contracts. Later, Scott said he was unable to directly address his concern because the city makes grants to general contractors and Tuck is a subcontractor. He did put Tuck in touch with one of the general contractors. Scott said city contractors must commit to advertising bids through the city’s Minority and Women Business Enterprises subcontractor list and that most of the subcontractors exceed the percentage guidelines set by the federal government for contract dollars steered towards minority and women-owned businesses.

Tuck told council members that his difficulty winning city contracts strained his ability to train and employ young men in the African-American community, adding that his problem was compounded by the flood of undocumented workers in the construction trades.

“Since the federal government won’t do anything about illegal immigration, since the state government won’t do anything about illegal immigration, since the construction industry is fueling illegal immigration, I’m asking that the city pass a resolution so that taxpaying citizens have a fair shot at these contracts.”

He added: “I’ve been in the business twenty-five years. I haven’t received a job yet. Not a phone call, not an offer. I’m not going to sit idly by and have my throat cut.”

The mayor responded that council would consider Tuck’s request at its work session on Friday.

Later, when she was pressed on whether a proposed resolution might exclude general contractors who employ undocumented immigrants, Johnson remained noncommittal, saying she didn’t know what kind of measure council members would support.

“I understand people who are legal folk here wanting a fair shot and business and being involved,” Johnson said. “I think that would be one approach to dealing with that. To enable people who want more work or feeling like they have a fair shot – we better involve them.”

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