PIRT Bombs

by Jeff Sykes

I filed a public information request for emails containing the search term “Jason Cannon” a while back. I was looking for evidence of his financial settlement with Downtown Greensboro Inc. or anything related to him accusing a member of the Greensboro City Council of creating a hostile work environment for him.

Cannon, who was president and CEO of DGI until his abrupt resignation in February, was quietly given a six-month severance package despite the fact that his contract clearly stated he would receive no severance package if he resigned.

Now I know that there is a lot of boosterish cheerleading among the press in Greensboro, but I’m not one to follow suit. I’d like nothing more than to make an email records request and receive a disc from the City of Greensboro that has 1,000 emails showing acrimony and finger pointing flying back and forth between combatants.

But alas, the request was a bomb.

There were 391 email documents that I received from Greensboro PIRT administrator extraordinaire, Sarah Healy, but no smoking gun. About two-thirds of the emails were from one of two sources. First, there were the ubiquitous announcement emails from DGI that everyone, and I mean everyone, in the Melvin Municipal Building receives. The second most common document were the dozens of emails back and forth between people trying to plan meetings.

Staff wanted to meet with Cannon to discuss expanding the Business Improvement District to include the redevelopment project on South Elm Street known as Union Square.

The folks who run the monthly City Market at The Railyard off Barnhardt Street wanted to meet city staff to request the city become the largest sponsor of the event, to the tune of $15,000. The email was included because one of the organizers mentioned meeting with Cannon to request funding support, which was not forthcoming from DGI.

There were some planning documents from the City Manager’s office inviting Cannon to a meeting of the consortium of local elected officials who are putting together a new economic development model for the city and Guilford County. I would love to have had that document about two months ago!

Oh, and there was the email from Cecilia Thompson at Action Greensboro demanding that Cannon get the planter moved from in front of the Green Bean.

“The planter outside of the Green Bean needs to be relocated,” Thompson wrote on Jan. 23. “It’s full of cigarette butts and other unmentionables. It’s bad for downtown and a poor image of the city. Can we find a better location? This needs to be handled as soon as possible.”

This was interesting in that I’m still trying to ascertain what Action Greensboro is and what the group does. I got some insight as I read the email exchange.

Cannon replied that he would be happy to ask the Clean and Green team to move the planter.

“To my knowledge, it is owned by Action Greensboro. Is that correct?” Cannon asked. “If so, please let us know where you’d like it relocated.”

Thompson replied that Action Greensboro had donated the planter to the City of Greensboro, which explains why three city employees spent the next little while on that Friday discussing who would go over and move the planter from in front of the Green Bean and exactly where they wanted to put it.

Public private partnership summed up perfectly.

There were a few emails from City Council member Zack Matheny to Cannon and other DGI staffers. A few of these emails from Matheny to Cannon were flavorful, not quite touching acrimony but definitely acerbic.

Take for instance this reply from Matheny to Cannon, after Cannon had issued a statement on Nov. 12 following a weekend of violence on South Elm Street.

“Jason, thank you for finally sending something out in regards to the events of Saturday,” Matheny, who is now the top choice to replace Cannon as head of DGI, wrote. “I look forward to your prompt response to my email this morning and other request. If I do not receive something within a reasonable time period, it will give me the understanding that you do not intend to respond, which, I would find disappointing.”

Matheny had written Cannon earlier that morning, but had used his personal Gmail account. The original version of this email was not included in the results provided by the city, but was included in Cannon’s reply that was sent to Mayor Nancy Vaughan, council member Nancy Hoffman, and several city employees.

Though personal email accounts used by government officials to discuss official business have been determined to be public records, the city does not include them by default in public records searches.

Either way, Cannon replied the next day to Matheny’s scathing email, in which the councilman questioned DGI and Cannon about their lack of success.

Matheny had followed up on Thursday afternoon, after not having heard from Cannon.

“I have to say, as the City Councilman with over 80% of downtown, I had hoped we would have a working relationship,” Matheny wrote. “Since you do not have the courtesy to send me your priorities for the upcoming year, I can only imagine there are none.”

Cannon replied about four hours later with a detailed answer to Matheny’s list of questions. But it was his close that summed up the atmosphere.

“Councilman, I too wish that we could have an amiable working relationship,” Cannon wrote. “Based on every communication I have with you, it feels that our interactions are adversarial. I very sincerely wish that we could work together collaboratively to move downtown forward.”

Don’t we all. !