If you missed the Tuesday, Feb. 20 meeting of the Greensboro City Council, you didn’t miss much.
Judging from the meeting – only the third business meeting for the City Council elected last year – Greensboro doesn’t have many problems or issues worth discussing.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan was absent so Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson presided, which meant the meeting started on time.
The only items that were discussed at any length were the Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise (MWBE) percentages on contracts and making appointments to boards and commissions, which used to be perfunctory but with this City Council has become a matter discussed quite often.
For decades the City Council has met three times a month. It held two formal televised business meetings and one work session in the Plaza Level Conference Room. The work session was less formal and was where councilmembers discussed issues, heard reports from staff, discussed them and generally conducted the business of running the city. Sitting around a conference table instead of being at the dais, and the absence of television cameras, resulted in the discussions being more lively and more detailed than the made-for-TV meetings.
Formal votes are rarely taken at work sessions, but if a consensus of the council is reached, the staff is often directed to move forward.
Since July of last year, the City Council has been meeting once a month. The work sessions as any kind of meeting where actual work takes place has all but been eliminated.
The new meeting schedule, which went into effect in January, has the City Council holding one meeting a month to pass resolutions and hear from speakers from the floor. No business other than resolutions is supposed to be done. So it is a non-meeting kind of meeting. The work sessions, which used to go on for half a day, have been shortened until they often last less than an hour and consist of a staff report without much discussion. At one meeting a month the actual business of running the city is conducted.
The meeting on Tuesday was the first formal meeting of the City Council since Feb. 16, and there won’t be another until March 20. One might think that after the two-day retreat – where the City Council was supposed to set priorities for the upcoming year – there would be some lingering items to go over, or even some motions on policy matters to discuss. But since the priority setting session included limited discussion by city councilmembers, there was no action that needed to be taken.
It is a little disconcerting to have the City Council take a hike. What it means is that the city staff is running the city without the oversight of the council.
Tuesday’s meeting lasted barely over an hour, and if Councilmember Sharon Hightower had not asked her routine questions about the MWBE program, it would have been well less than an hour.
As part of that MWBE discussion, Councilmember Tammi Thurm suggested that the city look at a small business enterprise approach “to keep more jobs in the local area.”
Councilmember Justin Outling said, “I have looked at this pretty extensively.” Outling went on to say that it was far more complex than it appeared.
He suggested that the City Council hold a work session to discuss how such a program could be implemented, and the council agreed to hold a work session on it in March.
After the meeting Outling said that if you have a local preference and an MWBE program you potentially have all kinds of problems in setting priorities. The decision has to be made about what takes priority – a local business or a minority-owned business that isn’t local – and exactly how to make that determination.
Outling added that a potential difficulty with implementing a local preference is that Charlotte, Raleigh and other cities could do the same thing, making it more difficult for Greensboro-based companies to get jobs in those cities. He said the result could potentially hurt Greensboro companies more than help them.
The council also discussed cutting large contracts into smaller pieces so that minority contractors, which are usually smaller, could bid on them.
Assistant City Manager David Parrish said the city had tried this without much success.
One difficulty with the city issuing smaller contracts is that the city by law must accept the lowest responsible bidder. What the city can do is require companies to attempt to hire minority and women subcontractors. If a contractor doesn’t meet the MWBE goals the city has set, the contractor has to be able to prove that it made a good faith effort to hire minority and women subcontractors, but was unable to do so.
Parrish said that with more building going on, it had become more difficult for some contractors to meet the MWBE goals.
The city is in the process of having a new disparity study completed that documents the disparity between contracts awarded to companies owned by white males and those owned by minorities and women. The studies provide the city the legal basis for the MWBE program. When this study is completed, the city plans to revise its MWBE program to be consistent with the new study.
Hightower said that when that revised program is completed, “I hope we’ll do away with goal setting and have requirements.” As has been explained to Hightower countless times, requirements have been found unconstitutional by federal courts, which is why the city has goals and not requirements.
Another issue that came up during the brief meeting was a discussion of the Renaissance Community Co-op, a grocery store in the Renaissance Shopping Center that the city helped get started. Councilmember Goldie Wells said that she had been disheartened by negative comments about the Renaissance Co-op and said, “Failure is not an option.”
Councilmember Michelle Kennedy noted that nonprofits needed to be supported through their infancy, a statement that appeared to have support from the majority of the City Council. Translated that means the City Council is willing to put more money into the Renaissance Community Co-op to help it keep the doors open. The question will be how much the city is willing to subsidize the co-op, which opened with a lot of fanfare in the fall of 2016.
The good news out of the meeting was that the City Council approved a $7 million contract for street resurfacing. Parrish admitted that the streets in Greensboro had gotten in poor condition and the $7 million contract, which is being funded with state Powell Bill and 2016 bond money, will help the city catch-up.
Parrish said that $7 million to $8 million in paving was about all the city could effectively manage in a year, but that this contract was part of a five-year plan to get the streets back in the condition they should be.
It’s pretty unusual for Greensboro City Manager Jim Westmoreland to talk about a political commercial at a City Council meeting, but Westmoreland condemned one as inaccurate on Tuesday night.
Westmoreland didn’t say it was a political commercial, but he said that he had heard a radio commercial several times that stated Greensboro’s water was “contaminated.” Westmoreland told the City Council that statement was “categorically inaccurate.” He added, “It is a false and inaccurate representation of our water source.” Westmoreland said that the city was completely open and transparent about water quality.
What Westmoreland didn’t say is that the commercial is an anti-Trudy Wade commercial paid for by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Wade, who is a North Carolina state senator running for reelection in District 27 doesn’t have much to do with the quality of the water in Greensboro, which by the way is remarkably good. Wade also doesn’t have an opponent, yet, but filing doesn’t close until Wednesday, Feb. 28, so there is plenty of time for someone to file.
People are extremely concerned about water quality, so saying the water in Greensboro is contaminated is a good way to get people’s attention. The fact that it isn’t true and that Greensboro has exceptionally clean water compared to other municipalities doesn’t seem to concern the NRDC. But it certainly concerns Westmoreland for people to be broadcasting lies about his city.
When several councilmembers suggested the city sue, Westmoreland said, “Rest assured that we’ve got this under control.”