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 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 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.

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