Outling looks to claim Greensboro’s District 3 seat

by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

It’s been about two months since attorney Justin Outling joined the Greensboro City Council as the District 3 representative, taking Zack Matheny’s place when the long-serving council member resigned his seat to take a job as head of Downtown Greensboro Inc.

Now he’s looking to win the seat outright, but faces a primary election battle with Kurt Collins and Michael Picarelli. The primary election takes place Oct. 6, with the top two vote getters moving to the general election in November.

Outling likely emerged from a crowded field of suitors due to his forceful command of the issues facing the city and his service on the city’s Minimum Housing Standards Commission, which he chaired for most of the last two years.

His appointment was not without controversy, however, as many observers pointed out that his role as an associate with the law firm Brooks Pierce, which the city often employs as legal counsel, could cause ongoing conflicts of interest. Outling repeatedly emphasized accountability and transparency during a recent interview as key to building community trust. Along those lines, he says, he has taken the position that he will recuse himself from any votes in which the law firm may have an interest.

As an associate in the firm, Outling’s income does not change based on the outcome of individual cases, as it does for the firm’s partners. Ethics rules require elected officials to recuse themselves if they stand to benefit directly or indirectly.

“That’s a position I’ve taken. The city attorney agrees that’s a position supported by city policy and that’s why I continue to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” Outling said.

It’s an important point to get out of the way early because Outling, at 32, has already accomplished much in a few short years of civic involvement. The Buffalo native has been on the fast track to success since his parents moved the family to Charlotte while Outling was in high school. His parents, a sanitation worker and a social worker, sacrificed much to give their children a chance at success.

“They really clawed their way to North Carolina in trying to create a position in which my brother and I could be as successful as we possibly could,” Outling said.

After high school, Outling came to Greensboro to study political science at UNC-Greensboro. He met his future wife during their freshman year at UNCG. The couple later married while Outling was in law school at Duke and his wife continued her studies at NC State. He returned to Greensboro to clerk for federal judge William Osteen, but had not lined up an internship at a local law firm that could lead to a permanent position.

Outling took a job with a multinational firm in New York before his young family was able to return to Greensboro three years ago. Since then, Outling has been involved in a number of civic affairs, including serving with the UNCG Alumni Association, the university’s Board of Governors, the Future Fund, and with the young professionals group, synerG. But it’s his service on the Minimum Housing Standards Commission that gave Outling insights into one of the city’s biggest policy challenges.

“As chair, I think the group of us did a terrific job of really holding property owners accountable, enforcing the ordinance, and making it clear that if you fail to bring your property up to minimum standards in a timely way then there will be consequences for that failure,” Outling said. “The amount of time from deficiency to resolution was dramatically reduced and we see a lot more properties getting into compliance.”

Outling said his interest in housing issues developed because he viewed it as an area that needed solutions.

“It’s a challenge. Historically, it’s been an issue ripe for improvement and from all sectors of the city you’ve heard a lot of concerns,” he said.

After serving on the commission, Outling began to realize that some of the changes he wanted to see take place could only occur if he was on council.

“I thought about some of the other issues that I care deeply about and observed similar things,” Outling said. “You can make a lot of great progress (as a volunteer), but you can have a much quicker and direct impact if you have a hand at the policy making table.”

He’s already begun to work on a text amendment to the city’s minimum housing ordinance, one he hopes council will pass in the coming months. Beyond the housing issue, Outling said he’s focused on the core issues of economic development and public safety. He also wants to work to maintain the characteristics of the city that make Greensboro unique.

Outling said that the city should have a dedicated focus on economic development and use that lens to influence other policy decisions.

“That means being smart with taxpayer dollars and investing in projects and initiatives that are most likely to drive economic growth,” Outling said. “That includes being very deliberate and focused in supporting downtown.

Historically, we’ve seen tremendous return on our investment for what we’ve put in downtown.”

He cited the Downtown Greenway as a targeted project that is delivering significant economic investment.

“Even though it is only partially complete, look at all the development and apartment complexes that have arisen because of the greenway and all of the development that is in the pipeline because of the greenway,” Outling said. “What can we do to advance projects like that and make it more attractive for people to invest in our community, hire others, stay here, and make other investments in jobs and projects.”

Outling voiced support for the Greensboro-Randolph megasite proposal, which the city has committed to providing water and sewer services for. He said the megasite could be a “transformative project.”

“It won’t just give us a few jobs, but could really move the needle in helping Greensboro recover from where it’s been for the past several years, lagging behind lots of other major municipalities,” Outling said.

In terms of public safety, Outling said he intends to ensure that police and firefighters have the resources needed to do their jobs. He said Greensboro compared favorably to other major cities in terms of crime, but that more needs to be done to make citizens feel safe in their neighborhoods. He credited Chief Wayne Scott for continuing the Neighborhood Oriented Policing plan, which alters patrol zones to target resources and solve problems where they arise.

On the issue of police body camera footage, Outling said he would be in favor of more disclosure to ensure public confidence in police, but that current state law left local authorities with little leeway to release the footage.

“The goal should be greater transparency and accountability and the disclosure of the footage,” Outling said. “There is a constraint on that by state law. That’s a problem and the issue becomes what is the solution? As a city council you have a pulpit, you have a voice, and you can certainly let the legislature know what your preference would be and you can advocate in that direction.” !