Europa controversy comes to Greensboro City Council: Request for deadline extension shot down
*Editor’s note: A typo has been corrected from Just Outling to Justin Outling. A photo gallery has been added to this story containing photos of the meeting on Feb. 6.
The ongoing controversy over the fate of the beloved Café Europa hit the Greensboro City Council Feb. 6, as members debated the issue in front of an energized crowd of Europa supporters. Eleven of those supporters, along with Europa owner Jakub Pucilowski, were given a chance to make statements to the council.
Several concentrated on their fond and sometimes poignant memories of the restaurant and what they felt it had done for the city. Others criticized the opacity of the Request for Proposals process that ensued after Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson decided to transfer Europa’s lease from Greensboro Parks and Recreations to the “public-private” nonprofit Greensboro Downtown Parks, Inc. Last Thursday, Wilson told The Rhino Times that he had been the one to make the decision.
Two speakers from the pro-Europa contingent, Jeffrey Barbour and Katei Cranford, alleged a conflict of interest involving Wilson and GDPI board member Cecelia Thompson.
“It seems really strange that the assistant city manager was the one who engaged GDPI and that he and Cecelia Thompson, who chaired the GDPI when he made that decision, have a suspiciously close relationship,” Cranford said. “They have some really cozy pictures on social media.”
I had become aware last week of the social media posts, all public at that time, that Cranford referred to. On Jan. 31, I had emailed assistant city manager Wilson and asked about his relationship with Thompson and whether his public Facebook and Twitter posts might create the appearance of a conflict of interest.
He replied with the following statement: “I am unfamiliar with the claim; however I have no conflict of interest. With regard to the Café Europa Space, I represent the City of Greensboro’s interests.” According to the GDPI website, Wilson is listed as a board member.
I replied by asking him the nature of his relationship with Thompson. As of 2 p.m. on Feb. 7, he had not responded to this question. Sometime during the early evening of Feb. 1, the day after I asked him that question, his Facebook account was deleted and his Twitter was put on “protected” status, meaning only approved followers could see his posts.
Thompson, a founding member of GDPI and executive director of Acton Greensboro, had been the GDPI chairwoman when Wilson made the decision last summer to transfer the Europa space (and thus the revenue from its tenant) from City of Greensboro to GDPI. On June 21, 2017, a YES! Weekly article was published on the hiring of Rob Overman as executive director of GDPI, Thompson was identified as chairwoman of that organization. When I questioned Overman on Jan. 24 of this year, he said that the process to transfer the space to GDPI had been initiated at the time of his hiring.
This particular point was never addressed in the subsequent discussion between city council members, which focused on Pucilowski’s request that the deadline for proposals on the space his restaurant occupies be extended from Feb. 16 to Feb. 23. Pucilowski requested that the council use this extra week to closely examine the process by which GDPI had been given control of the Europa space, and what the stipulations of the RFP document issued by GDPI actually meant for Europa or any establishment that replaced it. Citing what he called “stark differences from any RFP run by the city,” Pucilowski urged the city council to “take the time to familiarize yourselves with those.”
This controversy first erupted on social media on Jan. 23, two weeks after GPDI announced the upcoming RFP bid process with very little fanfare on Jan. 9. This was covered in my two previous articles on the subject, Café Europa may lose its space and Document sheds light on organization taking over Café Europa space.
In a turn of events that seemed to take Mayor Nancy Vaughan and District 3 Representative Justin Outling by surprise, City Attorney Tom Carruthers recommended that Vaughan and Outling leave the chamber while Pucilowski addressed the rest of the city council. Carruthers explained this by saying that both Vaughan and Outling, besides being council members and elected officials, were members of the board of GDPI, and that the terms of the ongoing RFP process forbade anyone submitting a bid on the Europa space (something Pucilowski has announced his intention of doing) to speak to or otherwise contact any member of the GDPI board. After some debate, Vaughan and Outling left the room while Pucilowski was speaking. Later in the meeting, Pucilowski’s friend and longtime Café Europa customer Julia Abrams was allowed to take the podium, restate and elaborate on Pucilowski’s request.
The council debated the merits of Pucilowski’s request that the RFP deadline be delayed by a week so that council members, several of whom had expressed only recent familiarity with the issue, could take a close look at the terms of the RFP document issued by GDPI.
Before the session’s lengthy break, it appeared that Europa supporters might have some traction with the city council. Both Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and Representative At-Large Michelle Kennedy expressed sympathy for their concerns, with both indicating that they had indeed only become aware of the situation recently, suggesting that it had not been discussed at previous city council meetings.
The absence of any discussion of this issue at previous city council meeting had also been stated by Kennedy six days ago on Facebook, in an answer to a direct question by me. In the Feb. 1 Rhino Times article, editor/writer John Hammer also quoted Vaughan as saying she did not find out about this process until “last week” (the end of January).
After the break, the deliberative tide turned, with Outling (District 3), Sharon Hightower (District 1), Tammi Thurm (District 5), Goldie Wells (District 2) and Marikay Abuzuaiter (At-Large) all arguing against extending the RFP deadline or asking GDPI to extend it. Outling was the most vocal, but several indicated that they felt the situation had already received plenty of discussions.
“We’ve had these materials for weeks,” Outling said.
“I think there has been a tremendous amount of discussion,” Thurm said. “And we, the city council, and have spent a tremendous amount of time on this. I don’t think a one-week extension is going to change how we feel about this because we have so much history of talking about it.”
Hightower cited as precedent for not interfering in the RFP process the case of the Gillespie Park concession stand, where rather than renegotiating the owner’s previous lease, the city put the lease out for a RFP. On hearing this, one Europa supporter shouted that the Gillespie RFP had been conducted by the city rather than the recently formed nonprofit GDPI, but nobody on the city council acknowledged this difference.
“We have to treat these two cases the same,” Wells said. “I know there’s a lot of emotions, that a lot of people love Café Europa and don’t want to see it close.”
“And there’s no reason to think it’s going to close,” Vaughan said. “I do believe that Jakub is a very good position when it comes to the bidding process, compared to the other two bidders, being in that space already.”
Several Europa supporters in the audience expressed disagreement, asking if city council members had actually read the RFP document. Abrams, who had spoken in his place after the mayor and Outling returned to the chamber, told me that, even if Pucilowski wins his bid, his restaurant may become a fundamentally different place. The RFP document linked in my previous article shows that GDPI intends to play a role in not only management decisions of the restaurant that wins the bid but its advertising and menu, something that Pucilowski said Europa was never subjected to when the city was his landlord. Vaughan curtailed these objections by indicating the time for public comment at this meeting had passed.
Ultimately, the request to extend the RFP deadline for another week was refused, and the city council gave no indications discussing the subject at future meetings.
After the meeting, a visibly frazzled Pucilowski implied that several statements and assumptions expressed by the city council had been incorrect, with some crucial issues remaining undiscussed, but said he felt he should not elaborate until he had slept on the matter.