New Greensboro council considers changes

by Eric Ginsburg @Eric_Ginsburg

A small handful of people decided who will represent Greensboro on the next city council and now the changes are a’comin. If newly elected atlarge Councilman Mike Barber has anything to say about it, the first change will be free beer and cigars for every resident.

Not really — Barber was joking when he offered that response to what may change on council. Most returning and new council members agreed that the changes will be subtle and said the city will keep moving in the same direction.

Voters, the few that showed up, delivered Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan to the mayor’s seat, put Barber back in office after a four-year hiatus and — by narrow margins — replaced representatives in southeast and northeast Greensboro with Sharon Hightower and Jamal Fox respectively.

The two first-time candidates have reputations as strong community advocates, bringing a grassroots flair to council and a focus on disparities between their districts and other parts of the city. Both focused their campaigns on transportation as an important asset for districts 1 and 2. After being elected, they agreed that their main priority right now is getting up to speed with council so they can hit the ground running.

Vaughan is already in high gear preparing to take over council’s helm. She’s done research about how other cities deal with issues like empty storefronts, entertainment districts and noise.

Vaughan has other plans, too. She’d like to spend time in Winston- Salem learning about the standing council committee structure there to possibly improve the new committee structure, which is mostly ad hoc, and reduce regular meeting lengths. She asked the city manager Greensboro about televising committee meetings and to review the agenda before meetings so there aren’t any premature debates. She wants a formalized policy for city loans. And she plans to immediately introduce stronger economic disclosure forms for council members. All new and continuing council members that could be reached said they want to keep the subcommittee structure. Most said they didn’t currently have ideas for additional committees that should be created, though Vaughan said in retrospect the noise ordinance may have benefited from one. She said it might be wise to form one about the curfew and teen issues to avoid problems next summer. No council members said they would support a committee to deal with police issues, with several commenting that they wanted to give Love Crossling, the new human relations director, and the complaint review committee room to make changes.

Numerous issues with the department arose during the last council’s tenure, but most council members seem to want to keep their distance. Several, like Hoffmann, said they believe most of the turmoil around the department is in the past.

Fox suggested separately that a public safety committee might be appropriate and emphasized his support for an economic development committee. At-large Councilwoman Marikay  Abuzuaiter, who was reelected, said the tee on the Renaissance Center, too.

council might have needed a commit- kudos to Mayor Robbie Perkins for While Abuzuaiter said she gives starting the committees and Vaughan for planning to continue them, Matheny accurately noted that someone else deserves credit. “The reality of it is, Bill Knight is Matheny said, referring to the former the one that thought of it originally,” conservative mayor who lost a bid against Nancy Hoffmann in District 4 Vaughan said the inexperience of two this election.

new council members doesn’t concern her, but added that she’ll make sure they are up to date with staff’s help so the first few agendas don’t steamroll anyone. She hasn’t served with Barber before, but he was a law partner with her husband Don and their kids attended pre-school together. Vaughan said she hopes Hightower will give new voice to District 1.

She added that Fox has already transportation.expressed interest in taking a lead on community for a long time,” “Sharon has been a staple in that Vaughan said. “I think they both know their communities very well and they’ll be good advocates.”

Abuzuaiter agreed, and said the new council may be more receptive to community issues and listening to what neighborhoods want.

“I think a lot of us know Sharon’s been passionate about things in her community and I’m looking forward to working with her,” Abuzuaiter said. “I don’t know Jamal that well. I do feel that he has the heart of his district in his heart.”

Matheny, who said he worked closely with outgoing District 2 Councilman Jim Kee and will miss him, said the results in districts 1 and 2 surprised him.

“It saddens me that Jim’s not going to be there every day,” he said. “I respect Dianne [Bellamy-Small] but I didn’t really have a relationship with her.”

Matheny still welcomed his newly elected colleagues.

“I worked with Jamal [Fox] for two years, I guess, when he worked with the city,” Ma theny said. “He’s got a good attitude.

I’m hoping that we won’t have too much of a learning curve [with Fox or Hightower], particularly on economic development items.”

Matheny said he knows Hightower is passionate about District 1 but hopes that she won’t be too narrowly focused.

“We may be elected by a district but we represent the whole city,” he said.

Matheny reached out to Fox and said he’d like to talk soon and is hopeful he’ll hear back shortly so that they can be on the same page and Matheny can offer any help. Reflecting on the new composition of council, he had a revelation about his potential role as a mentor.

“Did I just become the longest continually-serving council member?” he asked. “Wow, I hadn’t looked at it that way.”

Like other council members, Matheny welcomed Vaughan as mayor and avoided saying anything negative about Perkins, adding that it isn’t a secret that he works well and closely with Vaughan.

Mike Barber, who previously served on council, said he is energized about the new council and knows the two new district representatives already.

“I’m enthusiastic about each and every one of the other eight council members and I think most council members could say that, and that’s why this council could be extremely effective,” he said. “I think this council will be more receptive to new ideas, simply because 33 percent of the group is new. I think the dynamic the citizens observe will be different.”

Bellamy-Small lost her re-election campaign not because of her leadership, Barber said, but because she didn’t work well with other council members. He said he didn’t mean to pick on her and that he agreed with many of her votes, but that her style got in the way.

“In any team environment, even with a great deal of talent, that ends up getting you in the end,” Barber said. “The fact that there will be nine communicating council members will be positive.”

Barber, a lawyer, said he has worked with Hightower, a paralegal, and has a lot of respect for her. He got a chance to know Fox on the campaign trail, he said.

“He’s energetic, and that’s a good thing,” Barber said. “In a community where we spend a lot of time talking about the retention of young people it’s great to have people representing five different decades on council.”

Hoffmann said she knew Hightower as a community organizer. The two met when Hightower helped convene a candidate forum at the Greensboro Historical Museum two years ago, and Hoffmann also said she has known Fox for several years through his work with the Young Democrats. Hoffmann hasn’t worked directly with Barber, but noted that he appointed her to the human relations commission.

Two years isn’t much time to get things done, Hoffmann said, but the current council may be more active than any others in a long time. She’s hopeful that the new council will continue that momentum on downtown, east Greensboro, High Point Road and several other fronts.

“Obviously the dynamics may change a little bit,” she said, adding that it “has the ability to be a very good working council” with a “diversity of backgrounds and experiences.”

Fox hailed the incoming council members’ disparate backgrounds too.

“We can learn from each other on council,” he said. “I truly believe I will work well with each and every member. Being the youngest, I believe I bring a different flavor to council. It’s a great time to be a young professional in Greensboro.”

Fox, 25, is easily the youngest member on council, but the A&T alum already worked for the city manager’s office for several years.

Hightower said her concerns — transportation, jobs, teen issues — are the same ones she trumpeted during the campaign. Like other council members, she said she’s interested in looking forward and not dredging up decisions made in the last two years, but added that she opposes efforts to change the name of High Point Road to Gate City Boulevard.

“I don’t find it to be that necessary,” she said. “I would certainly like to see the rationale for it. We’ve really got to dig our heels in and move forward. I don’t really want to spend a lot of time chewing my food twice.”

Barber is among those that said they don’t have any past issues they want to readdress, adding that moving forward the new mayor “may have ideas or concepts on how to approach issues, and I think we should follow her guidance.”

Hightower is hopeful that even if she and Fox approach things differently, their objectives will be similar.

“We already see eye to eye,” Hightower said. “We know our districts pretty much mirror the same concerns.”