Shake it up: Greensboro City Council Elections Getting Interesting – Early
Although the Greensboro City Council elections are nine months away, 2017 looks like it might be the year of the shake-up. After the last election, when every incumbent was reelected, new groups and candidates are organizing—early this time—a sign of dissatisfaction with the current council and of serious intentions to make some changes. Several candidates are ready to run and new groups are on the scene.
Democracy Greensboro informally began last fall with a handful of people at the Glenwood Bookstore. The group has now officially filed as a political action committee and is holding public meetings throughout the city every other week to gather ideas and expand its reach. Its last meeting in northeast Greensboro was attended by over 50 people.
With an unapologetic orientation towards progressive issues, the group has among its goals to elect a city council that will govern on behalf of “all people” with “greater transparency and honesty in all areas of government,” according to its platform.
John Brown is ready to shake things up in his run for mayor. The 55 year-old entrepreneur is co-owner of Jessup Services Company in Greensboro, a plumbing, electrical, heating and air company. Brown holds 9 state professional licenses and is the inventor of a device that autonomously mows grass along highway guard rails 24 hours a day. He is high energy, full of ideas and eager to take a hands-on approach to the job of mayor. He says he wants to be “the voice of the taxpayer.”
Brown says economic development efforts are focused too much on the region and not enough on Greensboro itself. He wants to give preference to Greensboro companies on city contracts. He also wants to sit down with established local companies, find out who their suppliers are and then recruit those companies to Greensboro. He sees such an active approach as the job of the mayor.
Brown says he’d take an active role in other issues too. He says disparities in minority hiring for city contracts are less about race and more about a good ol’ boy network which he says he has experienced first hand. He says contractors try to help their buddies get work on projects even if they have promised to hire minority subcontractors. Brown says he would address this as mayor by personally making unannounced visits to city-funded projects to see if promised minority participation is actually happening.
Eric Fink is a law professor at Elon University. He says he is “leaning strongly towards running” for an at-large seat. He too thinks the city could do better at economic development. He says it’s good to see projects downtown but that those are happening at the “near exclusion” of the other parts of the city. He would like to see the city do more to support smaller projects in other areas of the city. Those, he says, “can have a real impact on people’s lives.” He cites projects like the new co-op grocery store in east Greensboro which he helped shepherd to fruition.
Fink would also like to see Greensboro band together with other cities to stand up to the state legislature as they try to usurp local control from cities. That is a view shared by another likely candidate, Gary Kenton.
Kenton is a communication scholar who says he is “putting himself at the service of Democracy Greensboro” and that he will run, most likely in district four, possibly at-large, if he gets the group’s endorsement. Kenton says “there is a movement afoot in Greensboro that is demanding more forward-thinking and transparent action.”
Kenton says a council person cannot be effective if all they have is an agenda. “You have to be able to work with people,” he says. At the same time, he says, “You sometime have to take a stand on principle,” and there he thinks the current council falls short. He cites council’s unwillingness to stand up to the state legislature’s actions targeting North Carolina cities as an example. “The current council has failed to provide the leadership that is called for,” he says.
On economic development, Kenton says businesses are encumbered by needless red tape. If elected, he would look to streamline doing business in the city.
GSO Operation Transparency
Lamar Gibson is a fundraiser for a non-profit organization and a member of the new group GSO Operation Transparency. He too thinks the current city council has come up short on leadership. GSO Operation Transparency recently staged a sit-in at city hall in an attempt to get the city council to release details of an internal investigation into an incident of police misconduct. Council refused.
Gibson says GSO Operation Transparency hasn’t made any decisions yet on upcoming elections, but as he sees it, efforts to address accountability and ethics in Greensboro have been confined to advocacy and moral appeals that are not always effective. He says, “Direct action has been missing.”
It won’t be surprising then to see GSO Operation Transparency become active in the upcoming elections. Gibson says, “Incumbents have allowed the gears to keep grinding in a way that is not working for a lot of people and if they keep allowing that, they might feel the consequences in an election in a way they have not felt before.”
Transparency a Big Issue
Increased transparency is a big issue for Brown, Kenton and Fink. City staff routinely flout the law in obstructing access to government documents and city council allows it. Although Brown, Fink and Kenton agree that more transparency is needed, they each come to that conclusion from different angles.
Kenton’s concern is primarily related to transparency into the police who, he says, because they act on our behalf, must be accountable to us. Without transparency, there is no accountability, he says. He supports the idea of a citizen police review board with subpoena power.
Fink supports that idea too, but, as one might expect from a law professor, he sees a larger reason for government transparency—as a pillar of democracy. He is troubled by what he calls a “pattern of decisions being made behind a veil—a reluctance to make clear who is involved in decisions and who is influencing those decisions.” He says, “Transparency is the only way to see if everybody is being treated fairly” and, if elected, he says he will push to remove barriers to transparency.
Brown too is big on transparency. For him, it’s a pragmatic necessity for citizens to understand what their government is doing and expose unwarranted secrecy. He cites an example where he had to fight bureaucratic red tape to learn that the city engages in a practice whereby taxpayers are lead to believe funds are being allocated to fire and police, but which really is a scheme to cycle money back into into the general fund for other purposes.
Deception and Malfeasance
Brown explains what he says he discovered like this: He says the city buys vehicles it then “leases” to the police and fire departments at a rate above their cost. He says the police pay $92,000 into the general fund to lease a patrol car for five years. In this way, according to Brown, the public is deceived: Taxpayers are told money is being spent on public safety, but it is being passed through public safety budgets in the form of excessive vehicle charges collected from the police and fire departments only to be shunted to other expenditures, says Brown.
The upward spiraling cost of the downtown Performing Arts Center is another area where Brown thinks the public was misled. In addition to the escalating cost of the center itself, Brown finds it dishonest that concerns about parking were waived off as unimportant when the center was being debated and, now that we are committed, the city says it needs $30 million for a new parking deck next to the center. It was a “bait and switch,” Brown says of the project that was initially described as costing $55 million and is now over $108 million counting the new parking deck.
If Brown has a blind spot, it may be to the diversity that is Greensboro. He responded to a question about greater police accountability by saying, “There’s a few that don’t like rules and regulations. 10 to 15 at city council meetings that are always screaming about something and will never be satisfied.”
He also says he wants “to stand up for the hard working middle class that doesn’t get a day off or have time to stand at a council meeting. These people are the backbone of Greensboro that pull the wagon.”
Voters could find Brown’s energy, critical eye and attention to detail appealing. Let’s hope they don’t also come with an incomplete understanding of the varied interests of Greensboro’s residents.
Good for Greensboro
Other candidates remain waiting in the wings. Although the biggest challenge for them may be name recognition, they asked to remain unnamed for now. Should they run, they will bring greater gender and racial diversity to the pool of candidates.
Last year, voters approved changing city council terms from two to four years with this election. That’s going to make it harder for the public to hold sway over council members. So this election is more important than ever. Early indications are that Greensboro will get to choose from a robust slate of qualified candidates. That’s good.
The people and groups mentioned in this column may be contacted here:
Democracy Greensboro: DemocracyGreensboro@twc.com
GSO Operation Transparency, via Lamar Gibson: J.firstname.lastname@example.org
John Brown: email@example.com
Eric Fink: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gary Kenton: email@example.com