Some political associations too close for comfort

by Jordan Green

A number of currents are taking shape within the Greensboro electorate as municipal elections approach. High Point resident Keith Brown, who has his finger on the pulse of Greensboro politics — anyone who doubts it should review his role in instigating the restoration of the protest petition — is championing a “dump the developer” platform. Voters and some candidates are also signaling that they’re sick of the polarization and divisiveness in municipal government.

And in the wake of an aborted arrangement to fly Greensboro Mayor Yvonne Johnson and Guilford County Commission Chairman Skip Alston to Washington DC on a lobbying junket paid for by Roy Carroll, a powerful developer who has come before both boards several times on real-estate related matters, it’s safe to say that ethics will also be on voters’ minds.Political decisions in Greensboro, a city of about a quarter million people, are made by a professional and insulated political class of interconnected elected officials, developers and philanthropists. The field is so narrow that it’s nearly impossible for elected officials to take any action without affecting political patrons and allies – and creating the appearance, at least, of a conflict of interest.

That fact was vividly illustrated by the Greensboro City Council’s 8-1 vote on July 21 to grant Grassroots Productions $10,000 to make up for a shortfall in corporate sponsorships to support the city’s Fourth of July festival. The unpaid executive director of Grassroots Productions is Betty Cone, who also happens to be the co-chair of Mayor Johnson’s reelection campaign. Not only did Johnson vote for the grant, but she advocated for it in response to objections raised by District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade.

Somehow, it seems a little too cozy. An elected official voting to help an organization whose executive director is in a position to help her get reelected raises questions about whether the decision was truly in the public interest or was motivated by a need for political preservation. How can the public assess the merits of giving the organization money if the elected official also stands to personally gain in some way? And what if the mayor decided that approving the grant was not good public policy? Would she then have to worry about offending her political ally, and wonder that her co-chair’s enthusiasm would be dampened?

I know that the mayor is not insensitive to ethical considerations. Sitting with the mayor earlier this month, I asked why she doesn’t redistribute her prodigious campaign funds to help elect likeminded candidates who could help her obtain the majority to push through major policy initiatives. “Because it just doesn’t feel right,” she said. “I’m not going to do anything that doesn’t feel right.”

Some people — Keith Brown among them — don’t take her at her word, but she insists that she didn’t realize there was anything ethically wrong with Roy Carroll flying her to Washington, and once she learned that it was considered a conflict of interest she immediately backed out.

Regrettably, even though one might perceive a conflict of interest in a sitting council member voting to approve funding for an organization headed by her campaign co-chair, it appears that there is no violation of ethical guidelines. What’s more, Mayor Johnson probably could not have recused herself from the vote even if she had wanted to.

I asked City Attorney Terry Wood about the matter, and he referred me to the city’s conflict of interest ordinance, which states, in effect, that any elected officer with a direct or indirect conflict of interest in a matter shall make that interest known and refrain from voting.

“There’s no quid pro quo,” Wood told me.

But isn’t the mayor’s campaign co-chair in a position to benefit from her vote, and doesn’t the mayor in turn stand to benefit from her campaign co-chair’s advocacy for her reelection?

“You take that to an extreme,” Wood replied, “and just about every city council member is involved in some nonprofit. If that were the case, they wouldn’t even be able to vote on the budget.”

Wood added that political campaigning is an activity protected under the First Amendment.

“When you start talking about political campaigning, freedom of speech comes into it,” he said. “Betty Cone has the right to support anyone and to be on that campaign committee. The only thing she can’t do, is she can’t be promised a position.”The clincher is NC General Statute 160A-75, which states that “no member shall be excused from voting except upon matters involving the consideration of his own financial interest or official conduct.”

Mayor Johnson indicated to me on Monday that she thought my query was nonsense.

“I feel no conflict,” she said. “I feel no ethical anything. I focus strictly on what this means to Greensboro, that in this tough economic time people backed out. If it was Podunk Charlie, I still would have voted for it.”

The Fourth of July party is a worthy cause, which is evident in the fact that seven council members with no personal interest in it voted to defray its costs with city funds. The fireworks and the concerts, the craft bazaar and the parade that welcomes participants of all political persuasions are offered for free (although the police, transportation and cleanup costs are borne by the taxpayers). The festival puts money into the pockets of local musicians and vendors, and creates a sense of togetherness that is precious in our conflicted city.

That said, it seems like we the people should know beyond the shadow of a doubt that their elected representatives’ motives are pure.

Any state lawmakers want to take a crack at this? Don Vaughan? Pricey Harrison?