‘Voices of Greensboro’ raised in support of Café Europa
“Many downtown residents are unhappy with the way the city has been handling things, and not just the situation with Café Europa,” said Jenn Graf, owner of Vintage to Vogue Boutique at 124 N. Davie Street in Greensboro, when I asked her why she was inviting people to show up at her shop this past week. There, citizens of Greensboro and Europa supporters gathered and were photographed holding a whiteboard on which they expressed questions they had regarding Europa and other decisions the city has made.
To publicize those statements on social media, Graf collaborated with photographers Ciara Kelley and Allen Martin on the Voices of Greensboro project.
“We were pleasantly shocked at how many people came out to show their support for Café Europa and the injustice taking place,” wrote Graf, explaining that “it was touching to see supporters of Café Europa take time out of their busy schedules to participate in this event.”
Martin expressed the view of many Café Europa supporters when he condemned the Request for Proposals bidding process conducted by the public-private nonprofit Greensboro Parks Downtown, Inc., to which Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson gave management of the restaurant space in Cultural Center at 200 N. Davie Street last November. “It has never been a ‘fair and equitable’ or open process,” Martin said. “Instead, it’s been a hostile takeover from the beginning.”
Many whiteboard statements from Voices of Greensboro criticize the perceived lack of transparency. Several raised the issue of the alleged romantic relationship between Wilson and GDPI board member Cecelia Thompson, saying it creates an appearance of a conflict of interest. Wilson’s decision transferred an asset, which had been previously paying rent to the city to GDPI, the organization which Thompson, also the executive director of Action Greensboro, co-founded and chaired when the decision was made.
On Feb. 4, Mayor Nancy Vaughan sent YES! Weekly an email quoting city attorney Tom Carruthers’ opinion that Wilson and Thompson’s relationship did not constitute a conflict of interest, as “the city’s funding to GPDI does not provide a financial benefit to any board member.” I wrote the mayor and the city attorney back, asking as a point of clarification if the financial benefit to an organization chaired by Thompson at the time of decision might still be a matter of concern. Neither the mayor nor the city attorney responded.
On Feb. 23, Frayda S. Bluestein, professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina School of Government, replied to my email inquiry about this issue. She agreed with the city attorney’s opinion but made the following statement:
“The legal conflict of interest provisions generally are concerned with public officials gaining financial benefits from decisions they are responsible for making. Nonprofit board members do not gain financially from their service. It is certainly possible that the public might be concerned about whether a public official can make objective decisions when there is a personal relationship involved. That is a perhaps an ethical issue, but I don’t think, based on the facts you’ve presented, that it is a legal one.”
The UNC School of Government document Conflict of Interest Laws for North Carolina Public Officials & Employees by Norma R. Houston mentions the ethical issue. At the end of the first paragraph of Section 1, “Conflicts of Interest in Public Contracting,” is the following statement: “Situations that are not illegal may nonetheless be inappropriate, so public officials should always consider the public perception of their actions in addition to the legal consequences.”
Martin told me that he and other Voices of Greensboro are concerned with ethics and appearances.
“As tax-paying citizens of Greensboro,” he wrote in an email, “we should have a right to transparency by the city government. The city clearly feels differently, and that’s why so many have spoken out.”
Europa supporter Michael Townsend expressed similar sentiments when I interviewed him while he was having his photo taken for Voices of Greensboro. Townsend said he’d been appalled by the way the entire Greensboro City Council has addressed or failed to address, the issue of transparency.
“I just don’t think what’s been going on is right,” he said while writing #VoterRegret on the whiteboard.
Photos from the Voices of Greensboro project are being posted on Facebook and Instagram this week. To see them for yourself, follow Voices of Greensboro on Facebook and Instagram (@VoicesofGreensboro).
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.