Nine candidates jostle for three at-large seats on Greensboro council

by Eric Ginsburg @Eric_Ginsburg

There are nine choices for three seats in the Greensboro City Council at-large primary race, a competition every resident has a stake in. The election is citywide and each voter is allowed three picks. With early voting drawing to a close and the primary election scheduled for Oct. 8, here’s a quick-and-dirty guide to who’s running.

If elected, Joseph Landis would be the first openly gay city council member, an aspect of his identity that he said makes him care about equality and respect for everyone. Landis, a flight attendant and first-time candidate, is 27. He said he grew up quickly taking care of his parents as they dealt with various health issues and when his father passed away when Landis was 19.

Motivated to run by a disconnect between council’s rhetoric about revitalizing downtown and the abundance of empty storefronts on Elm Street, Landis said he would spurn economic development by working to cut through “red tape” that prevents people from doing business in under-utilized spaces.

Landis would like to see the city invest in renewable energy to save the city money, possibly focusing on wind and solar in east Greensboro to simultaneously create jobs. The city also needs to improve its branding, similarly to Charlotte’s marriage to banking and Raleigh’s emphasis on technological development. The Gate City could emphasize its colleges, diversity, progressive image and entrepreneurship, Landis suggested.

Mike Barber, the only at-large candidate who served on council before but isn’t an incumbent, also addressed the need to market the city, not just to outsiders for activities such as amateur sports competitions, but also to graduating students and local entrepreneurs.

There are several ways to convince people to stay, he said, including putting information in front of college students several times a year about reasons they should stay and dramatically improving the working relationship between the city and area universities. Barber said the city does nothing to take advantage of the countless CEOs and CFOs that come to the Center for Creative Leadership.

“That’s a godsend,” he said. “People spend millions for that and we don’t do anything for them. We don’t even buy them a soda. We don’t take them on a tour. I will change that. We have existing companies that would gladly underwrite the ability to court these business leaders.”

Barber is full of other ideas too — about reducing crime, altering council meeting schedules, government efficiency and evaluating the city’s sports facilities — adding that he’s much more sensitive to community level concerns than he was previously. Before Barber left council in 2009, he proposed the city consider reopening the White Street Landfill to municipal solid waste on several occasions, a move that fractured the city.

Barber said he and the rest of council were looking for costsaving alternatives to the city’s waste contract, but said after he left, the new council disregarded people’s sensitivities on the issue. Barber said reopening the landfill didn’t make sense for the community, and said he will not revisit the controversial issue.

Attracting jobs to the city is an obvious priority for any candidate, Jean Brown said, but it’s essential to stop wasteful spending and bring down taxes to achieve this end, she said. The conservative retiree can name plenty of examples of wasteful spending in the last two years, starting with the city’s planned loan to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum “I think it’s a good thing but I don’t think it’s been run the right way,” Brown said. “They haven’t put the thought into it so that place could be sustainable instead of the city continually doling out money for it.”

Brown opposes the downtown performing arts center unless it’s privately owned, the city’s decision to settle police discrimination lawsuits instead of fighting the claims in court, Coliseum Director Matt Brown’s recent raise and the water rate increase that she said will hit people hard when they’re already struggling. The city said the increase would amount to an average of $1.29 per household each month.

Brown, a human relations commissioner who describes herself as a “lone wolf” on the board, described herself as “very conservative” but “liberal in trying to help others but not with a hand out.” She owns several rental properties and said the city shouldn’t be in the business of telling landlords what to do; the candidate opposes the Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy program and a successor ordinance.

Chris Lawyer, the other conservative candidate, is running at large again after narrowly losing to progressive Marikay Abuzuaiter in the 2011 general election. His focus is “making sure we’re putting ourselves on strong fiscal ground,” which he said the city can achieve by streamlining processes and regulations and keeping taxes as low as possible. Council did not change the property tax rate while passing the annual budget this summer, but Lawyer also criticized the water rate increase as lacking justification even though he said maintaining public safety and infrastructure are “non-negotiable.”

“We’ve really got to take into account the people that are most impacted,” he said. “The people who aren’t struggling aren’t going to feel that or maybe understand that.”

Lawyer is an emergency room physician, a job that he says puts him in touch with people “from all walks of life” and requires him to care for people and make solid, quick decisions to help them transition back to their normal lives — qualities he said would translate well into public service like the city council.

Marlando Pridgen’s biggest concern is “strategic and comprehensive economic development,” particularly access to transportation and a longterm strategy overall.

“We have so many parts of our economy that operate with a third shift,” he said, adding that late night or 24-hour transportation service is important for people working in a variety of industries. Pridgen is concerned about increases in public transportation rates, but suggested the city do more to partner with private companies whose employees need transportation to develop solutions.


Pridgen, who served as the student government vice president at UNCG, said he’s already volunteered with the city, county and other major institutions on matters related transportation, mental health, drug abuse and the legal system. That ability to collaborate is a primary reason that residents should vote for him, Pridgen said.

“I will be the first to tell people that I don’t have all the answers or expertise in some areas, but I have a great ability to partner with people,” he said.

The performing arts center is a good idea to some extent, Pridgen said, but he said he is concerned that it may further an economic imbalance in the city. Council explored the issue over almost all of its two-year term, but Pridgen said he would have examined it more in depth and would have liked to see the matter put before voters in a bond referendum, as council considered at one point in the process.

Incumbent Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter, who was elected in 2011 after two unsuccessful bids, voted for the performing arts center to go before voters but ultimately voted against the latest incarnation of the plan. Abuzuaiter said she believes she’s proven that she’s a strong community advocate on the center and other issues such as the Bessemer Shopping Center and Renaissance Community Cooperative.

“I always vote with what the community wants,” she said. “I’ve also tried to bring to council a sense of what we really need in our community versus what we want in our community.”

Her grassroots engagement lead her to serve on the human relations commission before being elected, join activist groups like Occupy Greensboro and recently join a faithled community committee looking at healthcare access in the wake of HealthServe’s closing. Council should be concerned with issues outside its purview that affect city residents, Abuzuaiter said, such as healthcare or reaching out to teenagers. Outreach to teens and community engagement would be more preferable than a renewed curfew, Abuzuaiter said.

She is also concerned about development, serving on council’s economic development committee and focusing on loans to small businesses and helping local companies with marketing. It’s great to focus on downtown, she said, but there are lots of small businesses in outlying areas of the city that nobody else is fighting for, Abuzuaiter said.

Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, the other at-large incumbent, also listed jobs and economic development as her top priorities, citing plans to create more site-ready development land and the need to focus on infrastructure as key ways to do that.

“The other thing I will be doing is pumping up the volume in terms of buying locally and using local people for contracts,” she said. “We use people a lot from other places and we really need to make sure we’re not looking over and skipping over people here.”

Johnson, who served as mayor from 2007 to 2009, stressed the importance of strong neighborhoods, saying as she has in the past that they are the “backbone of the city.” Neighborhoods face a variety of issues, she said, referencing the Bessemer Shopping Center, and Johnson said she wants to be more involved in neighborhood-level issues.

Johnson acted as the council liaison to Southside and Willow Oaks neighborhoods in the past, she said. During the current term, Johnson served on council’s tree ordinance committee after several neighborhoods raised concerns about Duke Energy’s practices. She also sat on the post-RUCO committee and chairs a new participatory budgeting committee.

Every election, issues with the police department are raised, and every year council members stop discussing the issue after the election, Ben Holder said. That’s one of the reasons he is running.

“We need to have a real conversation about a police civilian review board with subpoena power,” Holder said. “Nobody’s bringing up real issues. We need a new, dynamic chief of police.”

Holder, a long-time council critic an activist for quality housing and city government transparency, said he expects Chief Ken Miller to retire soon and that council must meaningfully engage with problems in the department. He leveled criticism at City Manager Denise Turner Roth, who he said dealt with the issues raised about police poorly and asserted she isn’t qualified for her job. He also said that he would tackle a lack of transparency and incompetency, auditing each city department and revamping the public records process.

“There are a lot of staff members that are arrogant and lie and aren’t genuine,” Holder said. “There’s a lot of dead weight, a lot of fat, in the city that needs to stop.”

The candidate proposed a public records subcommittee of council, naming several instances in which he said city staff has withheld public records from him and citing the city’s failed attempt to obtain a temporary restraining order to stop YES! Weekly from distributing an article about police surveillance because of information obtained in publicinformation requests.

Holder said he doesn’t just critique the city but “moves the ball forward” on issues such as housing or illegal massage parlors, pushing for specific action in a way that draws results.

Given her outspoken opposition to more restrictive noise ordinances the current council has passed, it’s not surprising that one of Katei Cranford’s campaign tags is “#stayloud.” The 28- year old Greensboro native could not be reached for comment in time for this article.

See YES! Weekly’s primary endorsements on page 18.