Samet opposes Greensboro minimum wage hike

by Jordan Green

dirt. Samet opposes Greensboro minimum wage hike

by Jordan Green

The Greensboro City Council voted last December to certify petitions gathered in a citizen initiative to raise the city’s minimum wage to $9.36 per hour. It was not a decision destined to stand. For starters, city leaders found themselves confused about the threshold for sufficiency under state law, namely whether the signatures should be counted against the number of people who voted in the municipal election preceding the petition drive or the election before petitions were handed over to the county board of elections. Since then, the city has asked the NC General Assembly to clarify the law, and advocates for the wage increase plan to launch a new petition drive following an effort to build broader public support.

The previous effort also ran afoul of local business interests that sprung into action earlier this year and persuaded council to rescind its earlier decision. “Small business, the Greensboro Merchants Association and at least another 35 people that e-mailed me said, ‘What signal are you sending to small businesses? What signal are you sending to people that want to come to this community?’” said District 4 Councilman Mike Barber before the Jan. 15 vote to overturn the decision. “If it does come before us… even if we vote it down, even if we make those good points, it then goes to a referendum, so for most of 2008 we will be advertising that Greensboro wants to be an island of unfriendliness to small business.” Barber, who is a real estate lawyer, also called the initiative unconstitutional. Those were points made in an e-mail to council members four days earlier by Mark Moser of Samet Corp., a Greensboro company engaged in land development, real estate brokerage and property management. “Increasing the minimum wage in a locality puts employers in that locality at a decisive disadvantage when competing against other semi-local businesses that do not have that constraint,” he wrote in an e-mail recently obtained from the city of Greensboro. He added that the NC Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional “any local act regulating labor and trade” in Williams v. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of NC v. Orange County. That decision, authored by Justice Robert Edmunds of Greensboro in 2003, upheld a trial court decision concluding that an Orange County ordinance concerning employment discrimination ran afoul of the state constitution, finding that allowing the county to create “particularized laws in this case could lead to a balkanization of the state’s employment discrimination laws, creating a patchwork of standards varying from county to county.” The 5-3 council vote to rescind its earlier decision on Jan. 15 found the three African-American members outnumbered. At-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw led the defections by making the motion to reconsider, and she was followed by Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat, a homebuilder whose business has since filed for bankruptcy, and District 5 Councilman Zack Matheny, a financial consultant employed by Wachovia Securities. Proponents of the minimum wage raise vowed to fight on, and their adversaries in business appeared to take them seriously. A Feb. 4 e-mail went out to all nine members of council from Brian Hall, another employee of Samet Corp., urging, “Please do not accept a petition that seeks unconstitutional action!”

“If the city council accepts the petition and enough signatures are valid, then council only has two choices — vote to raise the minimum wage themselves or place the issue on the May ballot for a referendum,” Hall wrote. “If either the council or the referendum vote passes, the action is still unconstitutional, and we are in a limbo that is likely to be expensive. This council needs to get on about the business of the city and not set themselves up for yet another series of lawsuits…. Our council members cannot bow to sentiment and break the law that they have sworn to uphold.” Members of the Greensboro Minimum Wage Committee were unwilling to concede the legal argument, and the next night they came to the city council meeting with a prominent supporter, Rep. Alma Adams (D-Guilford). “While many of the arguments made against it have centered on the wisdom of such an ordinance, it seems as though the determining point for many people has been the issue of its legality,” committee co-chair Ed Whitfield told council members. “The North Carolina constitution and general statutes is said to prohibit such local wage increases. We contend that both the state constitution and the general statutes are nowhere near as clear as those who oppose this pretend them to be.” Adams expressed “disappointment with the council’s rejection of the petition” and encouraged them “to revisit this issue, and do us right.” No one on council answered her call that night, but with the wage committee promising a new petition drive, Round 2 promises more debate on the constitutionality of local ordinances and the economic merits of mandating higher pay for workers.

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