Looking back at 2016, it was a year of elections, secret Greensboro City Council meetings and a lot of loud raucous participation in the meetings that weren’t secret.
The year began with candidates filing for a March 15 primary. But after the voting in that primary had already begun, a federal court decided that the congressional districts were not to its liking and ordered the state legislature to redraw the congressional districts and hold a second primary.
So there was one primary March 15 and another June 7. A large part of Greensboro was drawn into an all-new 13th District that attracted a total of 22 candidates. Ted Budd of Advance won the Republican nomination in a field of 17 candidates, and former Guilford County Commissioner Bruce Davis won the Democratic nomination.
There was no runoff election so Budd won the nomination with about 20 percent of the vote, which is still pretty good when you have 16 opponents; and it’s a Republican district, so Budd won in November also.
The redistricting put 6th District Congressman Mark Walker running for reelection in a new district, but he won the primary and general election without much trouble. Later in the year Walker was elected chairman of the Republican Study Group, a powerful position among conservative Republicans in Congress. Walker, who was a Baptist minister before running for Congress in 2014, has taken to elective office like a duck to water. So far he keeps doing what he said he would do, which is refreshing for an elected official.
After the double primary season, the general election was held in November, and because everybody said that North Carolina was a swing state, and many pundits predicted Hillary Clinton would win, we saw a lot of the presidential candidates and presidential candidate surrogates.
Even President Barack Obama came to the White Oak Amphitheater to campaign for Hillary Clinton, who earlier had made a campaign appearance at UNCG.
Donald Trump held campaign events at the Coliseum and at High Point University. For once North Carolina wasn’t a forgotten state when it came to the presidential election.
Trump won North Carolina, by the way, and Republicans won big in the state, with the notable exception of Gov. Pat McCrory, who was defeated by Attorney General Roy Cooper in a nail biter.
McCrory lost in part because of another issue that has been in the headlines throughout the year, House Bill 2 (HB2). Charlotte passed an ordinance mandating gender-neutral restrooms and locker room facilities in government as well as privately owned public facilities.
The state responded in a special session – before the regular short session of the legislature – with HB2, which requires people to use the restrooms and locker room facilities in government buildings that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate. This law, which McCrory called “commonsense,” brought a wealth of bad publicity to the state and had entertainers and athletic associations cancel their scheduled events in North Carolina.
The year ended with an attempt on Dec. 21 to repeal HB2. In a weird vote, every Democratic state senator voted against the repeal and it failed to pass despite support from the Republican leadership.
It appears HB2 will be an issue in 2017 as well.
But how about some good news. LeBauer Park opened on Davie Street in downtown Greensboro in August and has been a huge success from day one.
The plans for the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts across the street from LeBauer Park were revealed, but another delay in its construction was announced.
On the economic development front, the Greensboro Partnership finally got rid of that confusing name and went back to being the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce.
The year started with the North Carolina Railroad announcing it would spend $13 million to purchase the remainder of the land for the Greensboro Randolph Megasite, which made it a legitimate megasite. In December, Greensboro announced it had received a grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation to run sewer to the site. So that project showed significant progress during 2016.
For the Greensboro City Council, the year was marked by controversial meetings and secrecy. The council spent several months in secret meetings developing a bond package that was put on the ballot in November. Evidently the voters didn’t mind that the City Council did the work on the bond in secret, behind locked doors, and the $126 million bond package passed with flying colors in November despite the fact that “No GSO Bonds” signs popped up around town.
The City Council, when it passed its budget in June, gave itself a 60 percent raise. Next year when the City Council is up for election, we’ll find out what the voters think of a 60 percent raise. Other than discussing their own raises, the City Council didn’t spend much time on the budget. Although the council increased the vehicle registration fee by 200 percent and raised water and sewer rates, it didn’t increase property taxes. However, with the passage of the bonds came a promise of increased property taxes next year.
The council spent much of the year battling with police body-worn camera issues. In May, the City Council passed a policy on releasing police body-worn camera videos and voted to release the video of now former Greensboro Police Officer T.J. Bloch fatally shooting Chieu Di Thi Vo, who was coming at him with a large knife.
In September, the body-worn camera issue was raised again when the City Council voted to release the body-worn camera video of the arrest of Dejuan Yourse by police officers Travis Cole and Charlotte Jackson, both of whom have since resigned. That issue is not over, as people are still demanding that the entire investigation of that arrest be released.
The demands by people in the audience at those meetings has caused some of the most unruly and out-of-control City Council meetings in years, with people yelling at the City Council from the audience and refusing to sit down when their time at the podium has expired.
The meetings the City Council held where a resolution opposing HB2 was passed, those in favor of the resolution got so loud and unruly that Vaughan was asked by Councilmember Tony Wilkins several times to take control of the meeting because there was so much noise being made by protestors he couldn’t hear the speakers. Vaughan struggled all year to maintain some control over meetings and often failed.
In keeping with the unruly and secret meetings theme, in May when the City Council was considering bids to spend the money generated by the Downtown Business Improvement District, Councilmember Mike Barber asked for a short recess and the City Council went in the backroom, away from the public and television cameras, to decide what to do. Barber said he didn’t participate in the backroom discussion, but most of the City Council did and they came out of the backroom with a decision having been made to continue the item.
It is, by the way, illegal for the City Council to decide it wants to make a decision out of the public eye and troop into the backroom to decide what to do, even when it allows reporters to follow along with them.
Eventually the bid was awarded to Downtown Greensboro Inc. (DGI), headed by former Greensboro City Councilmember Zack Matheny. And the resurgence of DGI as an organization that is actually working for the betterment of the downtown has to be considered one of the successes of the year.
The International Civil Rights Center & Museum was in the news quite a bit last summer because the first payment on the $1.5 million loan the city had made to the museum was due and the museum didn’t pay it, and then said it didn’t owe anything. After much discussion and posturing on both sides, the City Council decided to kick the can down the road and gave the museum more time to raise matching funds. The agreement calls for $1 of the loan to be forgiven for each $1 the museum raises outside of its day-to-day activities.
On the upside, the museum did make the final payments for the $26 million in tax credit financing it received, so it should be in better financial shape going forward. The money the city had loaned the museum was specifically to make the tax credit financing payments.
And the City Council spent several weeks on an issue that seems like it should have been over years ago. Former Greensboro Police Chief David Wray, who resigned in January 2006 after he was locked out of his office by then City Manager Mitch Johnson, is suing the city for legal fees. The city has a policy to pay the legal fees of city employees who are sued as a result of work activities.
The city routinely pays the legal fees for city employees but has refused to pay Wray’s legal fees even though he was sued for actions taken while police chief.
The decision not to pay the fees was made so long ago that the city had forgotten why it had refused to pay the fees in the first place. Unfortunately for the taxpayers, the City Council decided to continue to refuse to pay the legal fees and has now spent something over $457,000 in legal fees to keep from paying $220,000 in Wray’s legal fees. No doubt the case will come up again next year, or maybe in 2026 after the city’s legal fees have increased a great deal more.
This was the first year that the City Council gave people in each district $100,000 to spend on so-called neighborhood projects. The program is called participatory budgeting, but there wasn’t much participation and one neighborhood project is a citywide bus locator application.
One of those issues is sure to come up in 2017 and that is a $20,000 game table for District 5, which happens to be Wilkins’ district – the only Republican on the City Council and not a councilmember who is in favor of big spending.
Wilkins is still trying to get the money spent on something more useful, but it will have to wait for next year.
Despite the fact that not many people participated in participatory budgeting, the project will cost the taxpayers over $500,000 next year also.