Tuesday night was a doozy of a Greensboro City Council meeting and it was City Manager Jim Westmoreland’s last before he retires April 30.
Westmoreland received two standing ovations at the beginning of the April 24 meeting when he was presented with a seal to the city from Mayor Nancy Vaughan and after he spoke.
Westmoreland made a few remarks, mainly thanking everyone and talking about what a privilege it has been to be a Greensboro city employee for 18 years and city manager for four. He also talked about how proud he was to be the city manager of a city that has pulled together after the tornado that struck east Greensboro.
The city councilmembers, who were all wearing green “Greensboro Strong” T-shirts, talked about how volunteers from all across the city had been streaming into east Greensboro to do whatever they could to help.
Westmoreland, also because he was retiring, left the meeting at 9:45 p.m., instead of having to stick it out to adjournment, which was at 11:34.
From 5:30 to 11:30 is a long meeting, but the City Council actually started off at 3 p.m. in the Plaza Level Conference Room for a work session. So by 11:30, councilmembers were more than ready to leave. Even Councilmember Sharon Hightower didn’t insist on making a long speech at the end of the meeting as she usually does.
After much discussion and more than a few speakers, the City Council unanimously rescinded one panhandling ordinance, and then by a 6-to-3 vote passed a new solicitation ordinance. Councilmembers Yvonne Johnson, Michelle Kennedy and Goldie Wells voted against the new ordinance.
City Attorney Tom Carruthers explained to the City Council that if the old panhandling ordinance were challenged in court it would most likely be found unconstitutional, but that the new ordinance was in line with what leading legal scholars were advocating. Panhandlers are no longer required to get a license from the city and the new ordinance is not only about panhandling but applies to any form of solicitation, from people raising money for churches to firemen raising money for a charitable cause.
If you happen to be panhandler and are wondering how not to run afoul of this law, it appears that if you are polite and you don’t get in anyone’s way, then you should have nothing to worry about.
Panhandling is a complicated legal issue because free speech is a constitutional right, and just where that right to free speech ends and a person’s right not to be harassed begins is an issue courts have struggled with defining.
About 40 people attended the meeting to oppose a rezoning request for four acres on Muirs Chapel Road and Kenview Street and were represented by attorney Don Vaughan. The opponents greatly outnumbered the proponents but the City Council voted 8 to 1, with Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter voting no, to rezone the property to allow 72 affordable housing units to be built by the Affordable Housing Management.
The site has multifamily housing and office zoning across the street and a single-family neighborhood on Kenview.
The opponents mainly talked about traffic concerns, but the development didn’t reach the level for the city to require a traffic study. Concerns about flooding and sidewalks were also raised. One unusual reason for opposing the development was that there is a cemetery across Kenview Street.
Mayor Vaughan noted that the city has a goal of having more walkable communities, which means more infill development, and that the City Council is going to have a lot of similar discussions in the future. She said, “We need housing no matter at what price and we need infill. I think it’s a good project and it’s affordable.”
After a heated discussion the City Council – by a 6-to-3 vote with Johnson, Wells and Hightower voting no – passed a local preference policy. Councilmembers Tammi Thurm and Justin Outling developed this policy, which will give local contractors an advantage in a very narrow range of contracts.
Johnson asked that it be tabled and Outling said, “I understand and strongly oppose.” He said that the policy does not conflict with the Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise (MWBE) program as Johnson had suggested.
But what really seemed to get Outling going was the idea of tabling or continuing another item. He said, “At some point action as to be taken and then we move on to the next issue.”
The default position for this City Council is to continue the item to the next meeting and Outling has evidently had enough of that. He said, “At some point you actually have to act.”
Most of those who spoke against the policy, including former City Councilmember and former state Rep. Earl Jones did so on the basis that it would somehow harm MWBE contractors. There was also a lot of talk about the recent MWBE disparity study, although the relation between the two was hard to understand.
Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann said, “This is a very simple policy intended to support local business. I don’t know why it got so complicated and misunderstood. It has nothing to do with the disparity study.”
Amazingly, at the beginning of the meeting, the City Council discussed whether or not to pass a resolution approving the assessment for a Lawndale Drive sewer line extension. These are usually routine items that are normally passed without any discussion.
In this case, Carl Huffman, who was also represented by attorney Don Vaughan, said he was being assessed $6,200 for a sewer line for his neighbors that he would never use and he thought that was excessive.
Don Vaughan suggested that this item be continued so that staff could take a look at it and see if the assessment was correct.
Perhaps because it was early in the meeting, the City Council decided to talk about this for a while, and it appeared that few on the City Council knew what they were actually talking about. Interim City Manager David Parrish explained that the sewer line is already in the ground and that this was simply approving the amount each property owner would be charged for that line.
Eventually, after the sewer line had been considered and dissected from every possible angle, the City Council voted to continue the item and let staff spend some time dissecting it.