It was another raucous night in the Greensboro City Council chambers at the regular City Council meeting on Tuesday, March 21, with people in the audience allowed to stand and shout at the City Council about the Police Department.
But at the very end of the meeting, right before adjournment, is when the City Council shot itself in the foot. The council has been extremely vocal about the fact that Greensboro has lost athletic events because of House Bill 2. But all on its own the City Council put several youth soccer tournaments – with an estimated economic impact for the city of $60 million – in jeopardy for a silly reason.
The City Council voted unanimously to postpone to April 18 consideration of a resolution to spend $2 million to finish the soccer complex expansion at Bryan Park, adding two more fields.
Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson asked for the delay, but wouldn’t say why she wanted to delay the vote except it would allow the council to work some things out.
This City Council rarely sees a problem with delaying a vote, but it turns out delaying the vote on the completion of the Bryan Park Soccer Complex could be costly.
Wednesday, March 22, City Manager Jim Westmoreland received an email from Pete Polonsky, the executive director of the Greensboro United Soccer Association (GUSA), informing Westmoreland that GUSA was turning in bids this week on four youth soccer tournaments with a combined estimated economic impact of $60 million. One is scheduled for December 2017. Polonsky said unless the $2 million was approved immediately he would not be able to bid on that event with confidence that the work would be finished in time for the tournament.
The vote to delay until April 18 is simply another in a long line of examples of this council’s inability to stick with a plan of action.
On July 16, 2015, the City Council unanimously approved the Bryan Park soccer field expansion plan.
At the March 7 City Council work session, Polonsky reported that because of the expansion the city was able to get two youth soccer tournaments that would result in a economic impact of $30 million.
At that meeting the City Council expressed enthusiastic support for building the two additional fields and discussed passing a resolution to that effect at the regular City Council meeting later that day. The decision was made not to add it to the agenda because the resolution had not been prepared. The council discussed passing the resolution before it was written but decided it could wait and pass the resolution at the March 21 meeting.
So the March 21 decision not to vote on a matter the City Council had discussed twice and supported took those involved completely by surprise.
Councilmember Mike Barber said the question that Johnson referred to but didn’t state was whether to line the fields for lacrosse as well as soccer.
The idea that the City Council is going to decide how every athletic field in Greensboro is striped is something beyond micromanaging.
Perhaps after the City Council decides how to stripe the fields it will also want to determine what variety of grass to plant on all the athletic fields and how short to mow the greens at Bryan Park. I can see several council meetings spent on what kind of nets to have on basketball goals at the recreation centers. But why stop there? Should the city’s librarians be trusted to decide what books to buy for the libraries? Should the City Council or the police chief determine what caliber of pistol police officers carry? The paper towels in the restrooms at city hall are not the best quality; perhaps a council work session analyzing the cost versus quality of paper towel purchases for the city is needed.
This is a City Council that has not discussed in any detail how it plans to spend the $126 million in bonds that the voters passed in November. Usually that discussion is held before the bond referendum, but months after the referendum passed the only plan for spending $25 million in the downtown is to spend $25 million in the downtown.
Since the council has important decisions to consider, like how to stripe fields, it hasn’t had time for discussing spending $126 million, not to mention the 2017-2018 budget, which will be coming up for a vote in three months.
The raucous part of the meeting during speakers from the floor was about a new issue but had the same old characters coming into the City Council Chambers and disrupting the meeting.
Mayor Pro Tem Johnson chaired the meeting. She reported that Mayor Nancy Vaughan was ill and would not be participating in the meeting in person or by phone.
Johnson did ask the people who were standing and shouting at the City Council to quiet down several times, and each time they did quiet down briefly.
Because they have been allowed to stand and yell at meeting after meeting, people now think it is their right to come to a City Council meeting and shout at the City Council. It’s only going to get worse.
The current topic of concern is Jose Charles, who was 15 when he was arrested on July 4, 2016 in the melee that took place in Center City Park after the fireworks. Police reported that groups of 20 and 30 young people were pushing people, blocking streets and getting in large fights. Police broke up the fights, used pepper spray and arrested five people for fighting and failing to disperse.
Charles was one of those arrested. He was charged with malicious assault on an officer, disorderly conduct, simple affray and resisting arrest.
The Beloved Community Center led by Nelson Johnson has chosen Charles as its latest accusation of police brutality.
The City Council at its last meeting on March 7 voted to review the police body-cam videos of the arrest of Charles after the Police Community Review Board (PCRB) had watched the video and had made a recommendation in the case.
The argument was made that deciding to review the video before the PCRB had made a determination eliminated the need for a PCRB, but the council – at the urging of Councilmember Sharon Hightower – voted to view the video at the end of the PCRB process anyway.
The new state law governing police body-cam videos complicates the whole matter. City Attorney Tom Carruthers said that in his opinion the City Council had a right to view the video since the attorney representing Charles as well as Charles’ mother, Tamara Figueroa, had been allowed to see it. But he advised the council that the better course of action would be to ask the court for permission to view the video.
Figueroa spoke at the City Council meeting and said that the Guilford County district attorney was trying to force her son to enter into a plea bargain. She asked the City Council to stop the district attorney from forcing her son to make a deal. She said that he had mental issues and wouldn’t be cared for properly if he had to go to a youth detention center. She also said she didn’t understand why the City Council was stalling on watching the video.
Carruthers explained that the City Council was following the same procedure it had in the past and was going to allow the PCRB to make its determination on the case before viewing the video.
Johnson said, “We have no control over the DA.”
Barber said that the City Council had been in similar situations several times over the years and he advised his fellow councilmembers that discussing a matter that was pending in the courts could have detrimental consequences. He said, “This conversation is not going to benefit the City of Greensboro.”
Several people who spoke had not seen the video and were not present for Charles’ arrest but spoke like they knew exactly what happened.
Former attorney Lewis Pitts said that the council was being misled when they were told that they had no influence with the district attorney. Pitts said the City Council could ask the police chief to ask the district attorney to stay the case.
As Pitts knows, the Greensboro police chief doesn’t work for the City Council; he works for the city manager, and the City Council should not tell the police chief what to do.
During this whole discussion people in the audience were standing and shouting at the City Council. Other than asking them to be quiet and pounding the gavel, Johnson didn’t take any action to bring decorum to the meeting.
The Charles issue was not the only one where it appears the City Council is going to ignore legal advice.
Johnson said that the City Council at its next meeting would consider approving a memorandum of understanding with the newly formed labor union, Greensboro Workers Association UE 150.
Carruthers told the City Council that state law “absolutely prohibits” agreements with labor unions. He added, “Any agreement between any city and any labor union is illegal, unlawful and void.”
Barber asked how many people the labor union represented and Charles French, president of Greensboro City Workers Union, said more than 90.
The city has over 3,000 employees, but the 90 members of the union are already making a lot of demands. A few of those demands are a $2,000 across-the-board pay increase, longevity pay, an increase to a minimum wage of $13 an hour for all city employees, five days of additional paid leave for union officers, the right to participate in employee orientation, union bulletin boards on city property and a healthcare insurance payment structure where low paid employees pay less and higher paid employees pay more for the same coverage.
The union also wants an employee committee to be given the power to overrule the city manager on personnel decisions.
Considering the attitude of the current City Council, it is possible that, at the meeting on April 4, the City Council will unlawfully and illegally enter into a memorandum of understanding with the union. Johnson said a motion would be made to that effect.
Johnson has long advocated for government employee unions to be able to negotiate and enter into agreements with the government and spoke in favor of it in Raleigh when she was mayor.
City Councilmember Tony Wilkins got half of what he wanted. In the Participatory Budgeting process last year, 70 people in District 5 that Wilkins represents voted to spend $20,000 on two outdoor chess tables. Because so few people participated in the participatory budgeting process, 70 votes was enough to fund the $10,000 apiece chess tables.
Wilkins has been working to get that money spent on something he considered more useful and, at the meeting on Tuesday, was allowed to add to the agenda an item to buy two tables for a total of $10,000 and award the other $10,000 to Out of the Garden Project, a program to provide healthy food in some of Greensboro’s more economically deprived neighborhoods. The motion passed unanimously.