by Jeff Sykes

Council clashes again over special code enforcement contracts | @jeffreysykes

Tension among Greensboro City Council members nearly boiled over during a work session Monday as council reexamined the process leading to two contracts addressing poor housing in the city.

Councilman Jamal Fox pushed several times to have recently awarded contracts rescinded, citing what he views as procedural concerns when a contractor who lacked insurance was hired.

Other council members questioned the short advertising period of the contract, while noting the rate of pay was “excessive.”

In the end, a majority of council directed city staff to explore expanding the number of contractors used to make up for a shortfall of code enforcement positions.

But it was the tension between Councilman Fox and Mayor Nancy Vaughan that brought the discussion down to an uncomfortable level. After a lengthy discussion on the details of the request for proposal that ended with activist Ben Holder being contracted to perform code enforcement services at $45 per hour, Vaughan pushed to move to a second phase of contracts. Fox, who had raised the issue of having the contract rescinded, jumped in, saying council needed to establish clarity on the issue before moving on.

“What’s the direction you want to go?” Fox said. “They mayor put the motion out there, are we going to open it up to everybody or are we going to take back the contracts, which I think is the logical thing to do.”

Several council members, including Sharon Hightower and Marikay Abuzuaiter, had shown an inclination to agree with Fox. Details of Holder’s contract and payment schedule showed that he had been awarded the contract prior to having liability insurance and a business license, despite the city’s request for proposal stating that both were required to be considered for the job. Staff explained that often those details are negotiable if it’s in “the best interest of the city” to pursue a specific vendor. Critics of the deal say that political insiders greased the wheel in order for Holder to receive preferential treatment.

Council members expressed the frustration voiced by several of their constituents who said that flexibility was not clear in the RFP and prevented them from applying.

Vaughan sought to make up for that in expanding to a second phase of contracts to make up for a five-person shortfall in code enforcement staff.

“I would like to see us go forward with a Phase II RFP, and open it up to the (minority and women’s business enterprise) to give everybody the opportunity to get on the project,” Vaughan said. “Especially to let them now their responsibility with the insurance and privilege license, that it will be upon award. I think we should go forward and advertise it more widely.”

Council member Yvonne Johnson said that taking the contracts back would be a form of micro-managing staff. Hightower was saying that “people are not happy about this thing” when Fox jumped on the mayor’s proposal.

“That’s ridiculous,” Fox said. “When you have members of council sit there and back and push and make sure somebody gets a job and then you have a process that you go through and somebody not even having insurance and getting $2,000 for signing the contract, that RFP process wasn’t the process we use at all.

“We just changed the process and then you tell me ‘oh we are just going to open it up,’ that’s a band-aid approach. That’s ridiculous. As one of the leaders of this council it’s either we need to stand up and start leading our community or just sit here.”

Mayor Vaughan pushed back, saying she had attempted to reach out to Fox to discuss the issue seven times since the council wrangled over Holder’s contract at its last meeting.

“If you want to reach out to me how about you have some integrity,” Fox snapped.

Vaughan was not flustered but several members, including Mike Barber and Zack Matheny immediately said Fox was out of line.

Vaughan sought to regain control of the meeting, saying she had called and emailed Fox in an attempt to discuss the matter privately.

But Fox was not mollified. “We can be part of the discussion but when you send emails out and you have people saying ‘you have great ideas’ or you have folks out there saying ‘what else does that side of town want, we gave them (the Renaissance Center),’ when you make comments like that, that bothers me,” Fox said.

It was unclear who Fox was referring to but Vaughan denied having ever made such statements.

“Never in my life have I said that and if you are going to say something like that you better be able to back it up,” Vaughan said.

Barber, who at times attempted to dominate the course of the conversation as it collapsed, urged the mayor to “call the question,” a procedural move which ends debate and forces a vote.

After things settled down, Hightower said that Fox had been threatened over the contract issue.

“I understand why he is upset. We should be able to have a difference of opinion. We should not be pointed at.”

Fox elaborated on the threats after the meeting.

“I was told by a fellow council member not to say anything about contracts because this individual had talked to folks about my past or something like that and I’ve received a couple of phone calls,” Fox said. “It is what it is.”

Fox declined to elaborate on which member of council directed him not to speak on the issue or what the nature of the threats were.

“It wasn’t (a political threat), it was just for my own good not to speak on contracts,” he said. “But my folks elected me to lead and represent them and stand up for them and when I see something that isn’t right procedurally, I am going to speak on it. If it’s not right, I am going to speak on it.” !