Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan completely lost control of another City Council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 18. Once again Nelson Johnson and his followers took over.
Vaughan can’t say no to Nelson Johnson even when he is yelling at her from the back of the City Council Chambers. There is no decorum left at City Council meetings.
Early in Tuesday’s meeting Councilmembers Tony Wilkins and Jamal Fox started yelling at each other. Fox implying Wilkins was a racist and supported hate speech.
The loud, unseemly argument was over a resolution presented by Fox and Counclmember Marikay Abuzuaiter titled “Resolution Condemning violence and hate speech, expressing solidarity with Muslims and all those targeted for their ethnicity, race or religion.”
Rarely before this current City Council have resolutions been a source of controversy, but the current policy seems to be that any councilmember can have any resolution placed on the agenda. Some of these have been controversial, but none have resulted in anything like the shoutfest between Wilkins and Fox.
Wilkins expressed concern about one phrase in the resolution, which accused “elected government officials” of “hateful rhetoric against Muslims.” Wilkins said if Fox was going to accuse an elected government officials of that behavior Fox should have the “backbone” to name the elected officials he was talking about.
Fox responded, “Mr. Wilkins, if you want me to put your name in there I sure will.”
And then it was off to the races with the two yelling over each other so much it was hard to hear what either one was saying.
Vaughan said, “We are not going to insult each other.” And asked them both to show more decorum on the dais.
Wilkins had already lost one battle to Fox over how long to allow “speakers from the floor on non agenda items” to speak. Vaughan had said they had 15 speakers signed up for the 30-minute time period established for speakers from the floor. Wilkins suggested that they cut the time from the usual three minutes per speaker to two minutes to get all the speakers in. Fox and Councilmember Sharon Hightower objected, so the time limit was left at three minutes and Vaughan simply let speakers keep speaking long past the 30-minute mark.
Nelson Johnson was next to last on the list, so it is no wonder that Vaughan allocated more time for speakers from the floor.
Several speakers said that the Greensboro Police Department should not have allowed former police Officers Travis Cole and Officer C.N. Jackson, who were involved in the altercation with Dejuan Yourse, to resign before they could be disciplined. They gave no indication of how the city was supposed to stop an employee from resigning.
Another speaker said that maybe Greensboro didn’t need a police department.
Both Nelson Johnson and Lewis Pitts demanded that the city release more information about the incident involving former police officer Cole and Yourse. The City Council released the body-worn camera videos of the incident and much of the information about the investigation of the incident.
Hightower has requested all of the information about the investigation that lead to the reprimand of Cole, who resigned before his disciplinary hearing could take place, so no action could be taken against Cole.
Pitts said that he understood the City Council had voted in a closed session not to allow Hightower to see the information. A single councilmember has no authority to view personnel records, however, the majority of the City Council can view personnel records in closed session.
Nelson Johnson asked that the City Council instruct the city manager and city attorney to release all the information.
He said, “You’re playing with dynamite. I don’t know if you know that or not.”
He added, “We’re very fortunate in Greensboro that Greensboro hasn’t exploded and it doesn’t have to, but it will.”
After the final speaker, Pitts and Johnson stood in the back of the chambers and yelled at the City Council. The chambers were fairly full with followers of Nelson Johnson, many of them students who joined in yelling at the City Council to release the personnel information and the information about the vote and generally commenting about what the city councilmembers were doing.
City Attorney Tom Carruthers said that he did not believe the discussion in closed session included a vote, but a consensus of council was reached.
Vaughan asked people to, “Please, be quiet,” but it had no effect.
Councilmember Mike Barber said, “The reason no one can hear anyone is that we have lost our way.”
He said, “We have got to follow the agenda. We don’t allow people to stand in the back of the room and badger us.”
Hightower, who speaks more at meetings than any other member of the City Council, accused Barber of interrupting her.
When the audience started shouting again, Barber said, “I will have you removed.”
Vaughan said, “We don’t allow speaking out from the floor. Please just be quiet.”
Nelson Johnson said that if the City Council would provide the information that they wouldn’t have “this kind of carrying on.”
So Vaughan acquiesced to Nelson Johnson’s demand and said that the people who joined her in supporting the release of the information were Councilmembers Yvonne Johnson, Hightower and Fox.
So Nelson Johnson won another round by filling the council chambers with unruly students and yelling and threatening the City Council with dire consequences.
Vaughan gave in, again, which means the next meeting will likely be worse. As long as Vaughan gives the people who should be removed from the meeting what they want, they are going to keep coming back and yelling at the City Council because that’s how they win.
Once Vaughan gave Nelson Johnson and company the information they wanted, they left the council chambers.
It’s amazing that so much controversy is being raised over the Yourse incident, where no weapons were used and where the only people injured were police officers.
At the end of the meeting the matter came up again. Abuzuaiter wanted to know if it was legal for her to release information about why she voted the way she did in closed session, since the fact that she voted against releasing the information had been made public.
Abuzuaiter said, “When I took my oath I took it very seriously that I would not release what was in closed session.” Councilmembers take no such oath about closed sessions.
Carruthers explained that the only information that it would be illegal to divulge from a closed session is city employee personnel information.
Abuzuaiter said, “Are we going to continue to have closed sessions?”
She acted as if this bit of information about the vote or consensus reached in closed session was the first time any information had ever been made public about discussions in closed sessions. The Rhino Times has frequently written long detailed articles about the discussions in closed session. Councilmembers are perfectly free to talk about anything in closed session other than personnel matters. Usually those on the losing side of an issue are more willing to talk about the closed session than the ones who prevailed, but it is a rare closed session where nobody on the council will talk about it.
Abuzuaiter said the City Council only had two direct employees, the city manager and the city attorney, and it was not the job of the City Council to delve into every personnel issue. She also said that she supported the Police Department.
Councilmember Justin Outling, who is an attorney, in answer to another question directed at Carruthers about the closed session said that there were two reasons for the closed session, one to protect the privacy of personnel records set by state law and the other was to receive advice from their attorney, and to divulge that information would waive the attorney-client privilege. He said that it was unacceptable to discuss those matters in open session.
Vaughan said that it was not a discussion of personnel matters but on whether to release information or not.
Barber, who is also an attorney, said, “I believe that we have already committed a misdemeanor here.” Barber didn’t elaborate at the meeting, but after the meeting said, “I believe we did take a vote.”
Carruthers, also after the meeting, disagreed with Barber, saying that the council reached many decisions in closed session by consensus and that is what he perceived the action to be.
Abuzuaiter, who has been on the City Council since 2011, asked for information about closed sessions. It is incredible that someone who has been an at-large member of the City Council for five years doesn’t understand the basic laws governing closed sessions. Abuzuaiter has participated in over a hundred closed sessions and from her statements believes that at some point in her tenure as a member of City Council took an oath not to reveal any information that was discussed in closed session.
The meeting started at 6 p.m. instead of the scheduled 5:30 p.m. because the City Council went into closed session at 4:40 p.m. and didn’t finish until just before 6. The closed session was reportedly even more raucous than the meeting, although it was just the councilmembers yelling at each other; they didn’t have the crowd yelling at them as well.
But coming out of a closed session with such hard feelings evidently set the tone for the open meeting of the City Council, which wasn’t pretty.
It is reportedly not unusual for business owners thinking of moving into an area to watch a couple of City Council meetings to learn something about the community. If any developer or business owner who was thinking of coming to Greensboro watched this meeting, you can bet they crossed Greensboro off their list of potential sites.