After the City Council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 25, you have to wonder who’s running the city because it isn’t the City Council, or at least not the City Council at official public meetings.
This year the City Council cut the number of its business meetings each month in half, which means it only holds one business meeting a month.
The City Council spent from April to August preoccupied with a new panhandling ordinance, which seemed to indicate that there would be a backlog of business to handle.
But the agenda for the Sept. 25 meeting only had one item of note – the contract to run the Greensboro Transit Authority (GTA), the bus service for Greensboro.
This is the third attempt to get this contract awarded and the City Council voted unanimously to approve awarding the contract to Keolis, an international company that runs transit systems all over the world and will run GTA beginning Jan. 1, 2019 through June 30, 2022, with an option for two one-year renewals.
The contract is currently held by Transdev Services Inc., and it was expected that the City Council would first have to deal with a protest from Transdev before awarding the contract. Nathan Duggins of the law firm Tuggle Duggins sent a lengthy letter to Greensboro challenging the way the contract was handled, including an allegation that the GTA board held two illegal closed meetings to discuss and choose the members of the selection committee that made a recommendation to the GTA board on awarding the contract.
However, the protest was dropped Tuesday morning. So the City Council only had the recommendation from the GTA board that the contract be awarded to Keolis to deal with.
There was little discussion about the contract other than from City Councilmember Sharon Hightower, who expressed concern for the current employees.
Assistant City Attorney James Dickens explained that most of the employees were union workers and that federal law protected the jobs of union workers in a transition.
A representative of Keolis said that in similar transition situations Keolis had retained 98 percent of the workforce and they expected to do the same here.
Hightower said, “I’d love to hear you say 100 percent; 98 percent doesn’t make me feel good.”
This approval was the third time the City Council has approved a new contract for GTA, but the first two actions were rescinded because of irregularities in the selection process.
The first contract renewal, which was awarded to Transdev, was rescinded when it was discovered that current Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston, who was a consultant for Transdev, had contacted GTA board members when the contract was under consideration.
The city at that point extended the old contract for Transdev for six months for GTA to reconsider the contract. In October 2017, the City Council again awarded the contract to Transdev and then rescinded that contract in December 2017 when it was discovered that a member of the GTA Selection and Evaluation Committee was married to a Transdev employee, a conflict of interest prohibited by federal law.
In December, the City Council ordered the GTA board to start the whole process over with a new selection committee and granted Transdev a one-year extension of its current contract.
It was the appointment of that selection committee after what Duggins alleged were illegal closed meetings that was the main point of contention leading to the appeal of the decision that was then dropped.
The contract awarded to Keolis is for three and a half years at about $20 million a year, and it appears that this time the contract will stick. The letter from Duggins withdrawing the appeal stated that the goal of Transdev was now to make certain that there was a good transition to Keolis.
The City Council also revised the ordinance to reduce the number of members of the Human Relations Commission from 15 to nine. The City Council voted to do this at its August meeting and this was simply the approval of the amended ordinance to make it official.
It appears the way this council is actually conducting city business is in small unofficial groups.
If the groups are official then they become committees and are subject to the North Carolina open meetings law, but there is no law that says three or four city councilmembers can get together as often as they want and discuss city business. If five councilmembers gather to discuss city business that is a quorum and falls under the open meetings law.
These unofficial small groups work largely because the City Council is made up of nine like-minded councilmembers. There are eight Democrats and one unaffiliated councilmember.
In the past, when the City Council has had more diversity of political opinion, the members in the minority have publicly raised cane when decisions were made by small group meetings and they had no input. But because of the lack of diversity, the current City Council seems content to let these small unofficial groups work on issues and simply present the final work product to the full City Council at a public meeting for approval. There is usually little need for discussion because it has all been discussed behind closed doors.
It’s a legal way to get around the North Carolina open meetings law and explains the apparent obsession with the panhandling ordinance. There was a 5-to-4 split on the City Council on how to handle that ordinance, so the discussions had to be held in public. But on most issues this City Council is pretty much in agreement, so the small unofficial groups to iron out the details works.