Only One Member Supports Wade’s City Council Bill

by Jeff Sykes

Last week’s press conference to discuss a state senator’s desire to reshape the Greensboro city council to suit her whims had it all.

A councilman bellowing at a councilwoman, lurching in her direction with a pointed finger. A reporter repeatedly talking over the mayor. That same reporter lecturing the city attorney on the nature of the law. A discourse on the fundamental question burning in the heart of every resident of the city: just who is Greensboro’s daddy?

This sideshow circus did not, however, succeed in undermining the passion with which a majority of the current council spoke out against arch-conservative state. Sen. Trudy Wade’s plan to shrink the city council and eliminate at-large representation.

Wade dropped her plan on Feb. 4 after about two months of build up in a local conservative weekly. Council members, except for conservative Tony Wilkins of District 5, denounced the plan as an usurpation of the city’s right to govern itself.

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, possibly the target of retribution according to one of the theories floating around the city, said the council decided to call a hastily arranged press conference the next day in order to address the large volume of calls and messages flowing in from concerned residents.

Wade’s vision for Greensboro’s city council would reduce membership from nine to seven. It would eliminate three at-large seats while increasing district representation from five to seven. The bill, officially known as Senate Bill 36, would give Greensboro a mayor elected city wide, but the mayor could not vote on agenda items except to break a tie. Of additional concern is the bill’s language that would give the mayor exclusive rights to veto any item passed by the council, which would require a five-vote majority to override.

In a glaringly surreptitious move, Wade’s bill bunked four current council members, in addition to Mayor Vaughan, into one serpentine district stretching across the city’s northern midsection.

Vaughan said that the council was surprised at the scope of the bill, in addition to having it dropped with no opportunity for discussion.

“It was not something that we really thought would occur,” Vaughan said. “It was very surprising to see five council members pinned in one district.”

Such a move would eliminate at least four members of the current council, she noted.

“Obviously then this plan was devised to really gerrymander existing council members out of their (current) district so that new people could be elected,” Vaughan said.

The plan lumps current District 3 representative Zack Matheny into a proposed District 4 with Nancy Hoffman.

The proposed District 4 is also home to the mayor and at-large members Marikay Abuzuaiter and Mike Barber. With at-large seats eliminated in the new plan, if it passes either of these would have to run in District 4, or for mayor, to continue service on the city council.

The city council districts in Sen. Wade’s plan, including District 4, is home to five members of the current council.

Observers speculated that Matheny, a pro-business Republican, was targeted because he ran against Republican state Senator Phil Berger’s son in a hotly contested Congressional race last year.

Berger was quoted in previous media reports as saying that Wade’s plan was “a step in the right direction.”

Wade receives significant financial backing from David Griffin, of DH Griffin fame, and others have observed that the limited mayoral powers could be payback against Vaughan for her vote not to reopen the White Street Landfill, for which DH Griffin had sought the contract.

Vaughan coolly laid out her criticism of the bill before opening the press conference to the six other council members present. District 2’s Jamal Fox and Mike Barber did not attend the press conference due to work-related scheduling conflicts, but opposed the bill in spirit, Vaughan said.

Under the current council structure in place since the mid-1980s, each resident of Greensboro votes for a district representative, three at-large members and the mayor. These five choices give voters the ability to elect a majority of the council. Under Wade’s plan, that would be reduced to one district member and a mayor with limited powers.

Vaughan criticized the plan as inefficient, saying it could create gridlock.

“It really dilutes (citizen) power,” she said. “I think you can have a mayor who vetoes everything and becomes obstructionist at that point.”

Yvonne Johnson, herself a former mayor and the council’s mayor protempore, said the current system was put in place by business leaders who wanted to improve citizen participation in Greensboro’s elections. She said the proposed plan would negate that.

“A lack of representation in the city causes dissention,” Johnson said. “Dissention causes hopelessness. God knows that hopelessness causes a whole lot of negative stuff.”

Matheny deconstructed the rationale for the change one element at a time, speaking in a form refined after eight years on council and on the stump during the recent congressional campaign.

As a fellow Republican, who considers Wade a mentor and a friend, Matheny said he was “disappointed” to not have been consulted.

“This today doesn’t help us move forward. It doesn’t help us talk about jobs,” Matheny said. “It doesn’t help Greensboro, or the Triad, or the state of North Carolina move forward on what we need to be focused on.”

With the region falling behind in economic development and with lingering unemployment compared to Raleigh and Charlotte, Matheny spoke passionately about the need for Greensboro to be competitive and focus on meeting its challenges.

“I wish this city, this region, this state, which I think is the best in the world, would focus on what we need to focus on,” he said, with his voice falling to a solemnity that added weight to his words. “This isn’t it.”

Wilkins, for his part, began his defense of Wade’s plan with the same measured words that Matheny ended with. But he soon seized on an opportunity to criticize the mayor, before lashing out and attempting again to shout down fellow council member Sharon Hightower.

Wilkins said that Vaughan had called Wade “a liar” on television the night before, a charge which Vaughan denied.

“You called her a liar last night on Fox 8 and I will be glad to play the tape,” Wilkins said. “I’m also angered that the office of mayor of the city of Greensboro would continue to add to a political resume by the friction that she is causing with the state legislature.”

Wilkins said the council majority had been fiscally irresponsible by passing budgets with the highest tax rates among the state’s largest cities. He likened the city to a spoiled teenager who had been given a credit card.

“You’re given that unlimited credit card, but all of a sudden big daddy don’t like the spending,” Wilkins said. “We have to realize who is in charge and we have to be fiscally responsible to the citizens and we’re not doing it.”

Wilkins said the cluster of five council members living in a two-mile circle on the northwest outskirts of downtown needed to be broken up. Such a cluster was responsible for $300 million in projects downtown while other areas had to wait years to get such amenities as parks and road maintenance.

“Look at the distribution of representation,” Wilkins said in response to a reporter’s question. “Instead of having everything right here in one little circle. How can you have five council members right here in a two-mile circle? When you do that, you see how the money is distributed.”

Matheny and Hightower bristled at that, with Matheny saying “hold it, hold it” and Hightower urging the mayor to cut Wilkins off.

“You need to stop him,” Hightower said. Wilkins responded much the same way he did during a recent discussion of a marker for the 1979 Klan- Nazi Shootout, by shouting over her.

“You don’t need to stop me in my conversation,” Wilkins said in a loud voice while pointing toward Hightower. “You don’t stop me from speaking.

You’ve got your time when he talks to you.”

Wade’s bill passed a first reading in the state senate on Feb. 5 and is, for better or for worse, currently before the senate’s Committee on Redistricting. !