In September 2015, the Greensboro City Council held its first City Council committee meetings.
Four committees of four councilmembers each were appointed, and the committees, according to the billing, were supposed to allow councilmembers to delve into topics in greater detail and then report back to the full council. The committees replaced the regular City Council work sessions.
Not quite a year later, this summer the City Council voted to do away with the committee system because it wasn’t working and go back to holding work sessions.
Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 3:30 p.m., the City Council held its second work session since the committees were abolished in the Plaza Level Conference Room.
The idea behind work sessions is that the City Council sits around a conference table, hears reports and can discuss them in a more informal manner than in the Council Chambers. Also, work sessions are not televised or videotaped so that there should be less grandstanding and more work.
At the Tuesday meeting, before the council discussed participatory budgeting – a $500,000 giveaway plan designed primarily to help district councilmembers get reelected because each district gets $100,000, theoretically for the citizens to spend on pet projects – Councilmember Mike Barber asked, “Why are we talking about this today?”
Barber suggested that the council have a policy on what to discuss at work sessions. He said, “This is not even one tenth of 1 percent of the budget. I feel like we have lost our way as a council.”
He suggested that the City Council have some sort of protocol regarding what would be discussed at work sessions.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan agreed. She said, “Everything we had heard so far today, we have heard before. I don’t want to continue to plow the same land. We all know all of this already. I don’t think we need to hear it again.”
She added that if some councilmember were not up to speed on an item, they should contact staff, not hold a work session on it.
It makes you wonder who comes up with the agenda. If the mayor thinks the work session agenda is a total waste of time, why didn’t she have the agenda changed? It is a “City Council work session.” In the past, the City Council has controlled the work session agendas, but obviously Vaughan wasn’t in control of this one.
Councilmember Tony Wilkins joined in, saying, “I haven’t seen one thing today that would justify today’s work session.”
The City Council heard a report from Greensboro Chamber of Commerce President Brent Christensen on how the chamber was doing and why the Partnership changed its name back to the Chamber of Commerce. He said it was because the name the Partnership confused people. Since people from outside the area were always asking what the Greensboro Partnership was, and he would say, “the chamber of commerce,” which everyone understood, they decided to change the name.
He also reported on the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance, a consortium made up of Greensboro, High Point and Guilford County that is working together on economic development for the region. He said that was working out well.
Christensen and Bryan Foundation President Jim Melvin also gave a report on the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite, but there was no news about it. According to Christensen and Melvin, they are continuing to market the 1,525-acre property.
Then came the report on participatory budgeting and the questions from Barber, Vaughan and Wilkins, which amounted to, “What are we doing here?”
The reason the City Council committee structure was discontinued was that the committees weren’t working. Most of the meetings would have lasted about five minutes except someone decided they needed to be longer, so city department heads started giving an overview of what their departments were doing, for example that the Parks and Recreation Department is running the parks and recreation programs for the city, which isn’t news either, but it did make the meetings longer.
To say that this City Council has no focus would be a vast understatement.
Vaughan noted that this was only the second work session since committees were abolished in August and they had some kinks to work out. The fact that the City Council had held work sessions for at least 25 years before trying out the committee system doesn’t seem to matter.
Councilmember Sharon Hightower once again accused everyone else of interrupting her when she wasn’t finished.
Barber said, “Tell us when your finished because there will be a celebration.”
It was a joke, but not a meeting goes by where Hightower doesn’t accuse other councilmembers of interrupting her. Hightower talks so much that if other councilmembers waited for her to finish, no one else would ever get a chance to speak.
Vaughan said, “I’ve just been to a meeting that could have been an email.”
They got back to the participatory budgeting discussion despite the objections.
Wilkins said that what they got from participatory budgeting last year was not what they were promised, which was neighborhood projects. He said the information they were given specifically said that there would be no citywide projects, but there was a citywide project – an app for people to see where the buses were in their routes.
Wilkins said, “You can’t call it participatory budgeting when 99.6 percent of the people didn’t participate.”
A grand total of 1,123 people actually participated in the participatory budgeting process. Some projects that received funding received fewer than 100 votes. According to the US Census Bureau, Greensboro has a population of over 285,000.
Wilkins said, “The difference between the bill of goods we were sold and what happened is as different as night and day.”
Wilkins expressed particular concern about the $20,000 that would be allocated in District 5, his district, for two outdoor chess tables. He made a motion that the $20,000 instead be used to buy mac and cheese to feed those in need.
Hightower said, “Certainly not 100 percent of the citizens got involved but it was 100 percent of people who were participated who were involved.”
It’s hard to argue with those figures. It is a fact that 100 percent of the people who participated, participated; even Wilkins didn’t argue with that.
Councilmember Justin Outling said that he wasn’t on the City Council when the decision was made to try participatory budgeting and he had some concerns. He said he was willing to give it another year, but wasn’t sure he was willing to give it two more years.
Throughout all of this, Budget and Evaluation Director Larry Davis was attempting to give a report that nobody wanted to hear on where the city was on participatory budgeting. He said they were considering looking at bigger projects in the future.
Vaughan was right, the entire meeting could have been handled with a relatively short email. But these meetings will continue to be a waste of time unless someone on the City Council, perhaps even the mayor, takes control of the agenda, but that is not likely to happen any time soon.