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The year in headlines: NC and the Triad

by Amy Kingsley

The Southeast suffered its worst drought in decades this year, bringing water supplies across the state to the brink of exhaustion. Gov. Mike Easley urged North Carolinians to cut their water consumption in half, and municipalities across the state imposed a patchwork of mandatory and voluntary restrictions.

In the Triad, Greensboro went the mandatory route, fining businesses and homeowners for watering infractions. Winston-Salem, which sits on the east bank of the Yadkin River, politely encouraged its residents to save water, and High Point flirted with mandatory restrictions before easing back into voluntary measures.

Meteorologists expect the drought to persist through the winter as the La Ni-a weather pattern continues to steal moisture from the region. A season of heavy rain would end the crisis, but right now we’re looking at a 13-inch deficit and clear skies as far as the eye can see.

Greensboro voters made history this year when they elected Yvonne Johnson the first black mayor in the city’s 200-year history. Johnson, a longtime councilmember, trounced downtown developer Milton Kern in the general election on Nov. 6.

It was one of the few predictable outcomes of a crazy campaign season. Johnson was favored from the outset, and Kern’s campaign suffered both a late start and an inability to define its political vision.

Eight city council seats were also up for grabs, and four of them went to newcomers – a loose term in this case, considering the return of two former county commissioners and a former city councilman. In District 5, former Guilford County commissioner Trudy Wade beat nine-term incumbent Sandy Carmany, and another former commissioner, Mary Rakestraw, came away with an at-large seat.

Rakestraw and Wade capitalized on widespread unhappiness with City Manager Mitchell Johnson’s leadership during a scandal in the Greensboro Police Department. All the sitting council members, including some of those who were ousted, supported the investigation initiated last year by Johnson that led to the resignation of former police Chief David Wray.

On Feb. 20, the Winston-Salem City Council agreed to pay Darryl Hunt $1.65 million for the bungled investigation into the rape and murder of Deborah Sykes that led to his wrongful 19-year imprisonment.

The settlement effectively lodged a period behind a decades-long ordeal that revealed the city’s deep racial fissures. Mayor Allen Joines publicly apologized and admitted that investigators failed to observe a number of professional standards. Hunt said police arrested him after he refused to implicate his friend, Sammy Mitchell.

The real culprit, Willard Brown, turned up on a DNA database after lab technicians determined that samples taken from the crime scene did not belong to Hunt or Mitchell.

Hunt’s case, which received national attention thanks to the efforts of documentary filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, inspired some soul searching among the leaders of Forsyth County. They are currently reviewing old cases, looking for other miscarriages of justice. One prime candidate, Michael Kalvin Smith – who was convicted in a brutal beating 10 years ago – may yet have a new day in court.

The regional initiative known as the Heart of the Triad took a beating this year as property owners organized their opposition to the plan that would bring mixed-use development to the rural pocket near Colfax.

Angered by the failure of plan supporters to include them in the process, the group lobbied state legislators and local governments. The Heart of the Triad advisory board, led by Greensboro City Councilman Robbie Perkins and others, said the plan is the only way to stifle sprawl. Residents would like to see their family farms preserved.

Transportation planners in High Point are already tracing highways through the farmland, but the planning process has stalled. Unless the Heart of the Triad committee finds a way to appease homeowners, the future of the area will likely rest in the hands of developers and property owners.

Scandal saturated the NC General Assembly this year, beginning with former House speaker Jim Black’s admission of bribery in February. Black submitted an Alford plea to federal charges he took illegal payments, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.

In March 2006, Michael Decker, a former Republican who switched parties and supported Black’s bid for speaker, told authorities the lawmaker handed him a bundle of cash in exchange for his support. That the transaction took place in the men’s bathroom of a Salisbury pancake house only whetted the already ravenous appetites of the Raleigh press corps.

Black is doing time in a prison camp, but the revelations continue. One of his top lieutenants, Thomas Wright, was indicted on charges of taking illegal payments and faces expulsion from the General Assembly. If the body votes to expel him, he’ll be the first legislator since 1880 to be ejected from the statehouse, according to the News & Observer. The former speaker’s son, Jon Black, may have used his father’s influence to get a generous state pest control contract.

Three days after the Winston-Salem City Council paid Darryl Hunt, the city lost one of its finest when police Sgt. Howard Plouff died from gunshot wounds sustained at a club called the Red Rooster.

Plouff and several other Winston-Salem police officers had responded to a call for backup placed by an off-duty sheriff’s deputy working at the club, according to the Winston-Salem Journal. A fight that started inside spilled into the parking lot, and shots were fired. One of them hit Plouff, who died 21 hours later.

Police arrested Winston-Salem State University student Keith Carter for the murder. Violence at the now-defunct Rubber Soul and the strip club Paper Moon inspired a new nightclub ordinance intended to increase cooperation between bar owners and police. Some of the club owners balked at the proposed regulations, but they’ve been working with the city to find common ground.

This year was a difficult one for Greensboro City Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small. Trying enough, in fact, to warrant its own entry in this end-of-year survey.

Her problems began in February, when the District 1 representative was pulled for speeding on High Point Road and allegedly intimidated a rookie cop. A week later, fellow councilwoman Florence Gatten demanded Bellamy-Small’s resignation, citing a pattern of unprofessionalism and disrespect for fellow council members.

In early March, a group of citizens organized a petition drive to recall Bellamy-Small. The councilwoman survived the late-summer recall election, which, paradoxically, boosted her reelection campaign.

Bellamy-Small beat challenger Tonya Clinkscale in the general election and Gatten retired from city politics. Next year all eyes will be on the District 1 representative, who steers a district plagued by crime and unemployment, to see how she navigates the new council.

This was the year local health-care systems doffed their gloves in a series of high profile and increasingly shrill clashes with insurance companies and each other.

Forsyth Medical Center lost the first round of a battle with High Point Regional over a hospital in Kernersville, but eventually prevailed. Then Moses Cone waltzed into High Point with plans to build a freestanding emergency room. The two health systems agreed to cooperate after a few chilly months in the spring. Most recently, Forsyth and Baptist Medical Center launched competing campaigns to build a hospital in Davie County.

That wasn’t all. A standoff between Moses Cone Health System and Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina left those in Greensboro insured by the company high and dry. The companies finally resolved their differences last month, traipsing across the field of healthcare like soldiers enacting a truce.

Just when the city began to recover from a rash of shootings that took the lives of several young men between mid-June and early July, Greensboro began suffering another epidemic. A string of robberies upset the East Market Street corridor in late October, during the same weekend as NC A&T University’s homecoming.

Police promptly pointed the finger at gangs, which they blamed for the blossoming violence. Mayor Keith Holliday tackled the problem at the state level by lobbying for anti-gang legislation, and at the local level by creating a gang enforcement unit.

Neither provided the quick fix residents demanded, and crime was at the top of the agenda come election time. Unfortunately, the criminal element paid little mind to the will of the electorate, and a month after the election, a spree of homicides again set the community on edge.

The city council called a special meeting in December and directed City Manager Mitch Johnson to find $500,000 for overtime pay and increased patrols. The violence shows no signs of abating, and may well continue into next year.

A shudder of anti-illegal immigrant sentiment swept Forsyth County this year when the county commission locked horns with Sheriff Bill Schatzman over a federal program that deputizes local law enforcement as immigration agents.

Schatzman refused to apply for the program – not out of ideological opposition, but because of limited resources – which angered Republican commissioners, including Chair Gloria Whisenhunt, according to the Winston-Salem Journal. Eventually he caved, paving the way for Forsyth’s participation.

The subject came up again when former Klansman Vernon Logan asked trustees of Forsyth Tech to review their policy on accepting illegal immigrants, according to the Journal. The board voted 3-1 to reaffirm their commitment to providing an education to every county resident, regardless of citizenship status.

Forsyth and other Piedmont counties have seen a sharp increase in raids by immigration agents this year, a trend that worries advocates and business owners alike.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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