The new Greensboro City Council was sworn in on Tuesday, Dec. 5, among a multitude of thank yous and a major change in the way the City Council does business.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan and the eight councilmembers who were elected to four-year terms must be feeling confident because at their first meeting they took away people’s right to speak on non-agenda items at two of the three City Council meetings each month.
The speakers from the floor on non-agenda items segment of the meetings, usually referred to as “speakers from the floor,” has been highly controversial in the past.
When he was mayor, Bill Knight moved speakers from the floor from near the beginning of the meeting to near the end and it became one of the biggest issues of his two years as mayor.
It also became a campaign issue, and, when Robbie Perkins defeated Knight for mayor in 2009, Councilmember Yvonne Johnson asked to make the motion at the ceremonial meeting to move speakers back to the beginning of the meeting. She was asked to wait until the first business meeting and did.
By moving speakers toward the end of the meeting, Knight was accused of taking away people’s free speech and of being racially insensitive.
The motion passed unanimously by the City Council at its ceremonial meeting on Tuesday night doesn’t move the time for speakers from the floor, it completely eliminates speakers from the floor on non-agenda items from the business meetings held on the third and fourth Tuesday of every month.
Instead, the City Council will hold what is being called a “town hall” type meeting on the first Tuesday of the month, where an unlimited number of speakers from the floor will be able to speak about whatever they want for five minutes each. The only business that will be handled by the City Council will be resolutions and presentations.
Vaughan noted that the public would be free to speak at all City Council meetings on agenda items, but only one meeting a month on non-agenda items.
Vaughan explained after the meeting that currently speakers from the floor are limited to a total of 30 minutes and are only allowed to speak for three minutes each. She said, “I believe it’s a really good trade off. I believe it addresses a lot of concerns and I hope people will give it a try.”
It’s true that speakers from the floor are theoretically limited to a total of 30 minutes, but the council has been quick to extend the total time to get in a few more speakers, and when speakers have not been allowed to speak at the beginning of the meeting they are allowed to speak at the end, so the trade off is not as good as it looks on paper. The three minute time limit, however, has been routinely enforced.
The most raucous meetings have almost always been caused by speakers from the floor on non-agenda items. It has been a method used by Rev. Nelson Johnson and others to get action on items that were not being considered by the City Council. Week after week, speakers have attended meetings and spoken on topics like the police shooting of Chi Di Thi Vo, the arrest of Dejuan Yourse and the arrest of Jose Charles. None of these items were agenda items, but the council took action on all of them because of the relentless demands of the public and the constant barrage of speakers at meeting after meeting.
It will be nearly impossible for the community organizers who have used this method to force the City Council to take action to get the same results speaking at one meeting a month, particularly because it will be a meeting where no business is taking place and presumably the only people in the City Council Chambers will be those who come to speak.
Vaughan also said that the council anticipated cancelling the meeting the fourth Tuesday of the month with some frequency. This could be interpreted as good news, if you are nervous every time the City Council meets that it will do something foolish, or bad news if you think that the City Council should actually run the city and not simply rubberstamp whatever staff puts before them.
For the last six months the City Council has been in the rubberstamp and continue mode. Controversial items like building parking decks are continued and items recommended by staff are rubberstamped with little or no public discussion. Cutting back to only one public meeting a month where business takes place also indicates more private meetings where staff gets together with up to four city councilmembers to hash out the details in private. It is the method that was used to develop the bond proposals that passed in 2016.
Only time will tell if the new City Council meeting schedule will work, and the first real test will likely be the first time Nelson Johnson and his disciples decide they have an issue they want to discuss with the City Council on a regular meeting night. It’s very likely that Councilmember Sharon Hightower will argue that they should be allowed to speak and will keep arguing until something happens.
The new meeting schedule goes into effect in January, which is usually a pretty slow month for the City Council, but this schedule could make it an interesting month.
Tuesday night, after everyone was sworn in and At-large City Councilmember Yvonne Johnson was elected mayor pro tem, Vaughan said, “This is your Greensboro City Council for the next four years.”
Along with Vaughan, those who had just been sworn in are At-large Councilmembers Johnson, Marikay Abuzuaiter and Michelle Kennedy, District 1 Councilmember Hightower, District 2 Councilmember Goldie Wells, District 3 Councilmember Justin Outling, District 4 Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann and District 5 Councilmember Tammi Thurm.
This City Council has three members who were not elected in 2015, which is a third of the nine-member council, and in each case the new member is far more liberal than the old. So while six members are the same, it is a far different City Council than was sworn in two years ago, and it continues the City Council’s move to the left, which began in 2011 when three of six Republicans on the City Council were defeated. The current City Council is made up of eight Democrats and one unaffiliated member.
Only two of those elected in 2015 lost. Former District 5 City Councilmember Tony Wilkins lost to District 5 City Councilmember Tammi Thurm and At-large City Councilmember Mike Barber was replaced by At-large City Councilmember Michelle Kennedy.
But in July, former District 2 City Councilmember Jamal Fox resigned to move to Portland, Oregon, and District 2 City Councilmember Goldie Wells was appointed to replace him. Wells won the election to a four-year term as an incumbent, but a very short term incumbent. Wells served on the City Council from 2005 to 2009, when she stepped down. Jim Kee was elected in 2009 and served until he was defeated by Fox in 2013. Wells defeated Kee in November to win her old seat back.
By the end of the month, the people of Greensboro should have a better idea of what to expect from this City Council, because a couple of big issues are coming up this month.
At the last meeting of the old City Council on Nov. 14, the allocation to build two new parking decks was supposed to be approved, along with the official closing of a portion of February One Place to accommodate building the proposed parking deck.
The City Council has already entered into a memorandum of understanding with two developers to build the parking decks and allocated a total of $4 million for design, but the remaining $63 million to build the decks has to be allocated. However, because of issues with the parking deck on East Market and Davie streets, the votes to allocate the money were postponed to the first business meeting of the new City Council on Tuesday, Dec. 19.
There were no reported issues with the parking deck to be built at the corner of Eugene and Bellemeade streets across from First National Bank Field being built by the Carroll Companies, which also owns this newspaper.
The holdup was caused by a major mistake made by city staff. The city purchased the property, and the design of the parking deck on Market and Davie streets had begun, when the city discovered that Rocky Scarfone, who owns Cone Denim Entertainment Center on South Elm Street, owned two easements from his property across the parking lot, one to Market and one to Davie. The parking deck had to be redesigned to allow Scarfone access to his property and an agreement had not been reached with Scarfone before the City Council meeting on Nov. 14. The council decided to delay the votes on both parking decks and take it up at the first meeting of the new City Council.
There was also some confusion over the closing of February One Place, largely because it will not actually be closed except during the construction of the parking deck. After the parking deck is completed, February One will reopen, but it technically won’t be a city street. According to Assistant City Manager David Parrish, state law will not allow the city to have a city street under a parking deck, but he said the “street” would reopen and people would not be able to tell it wasn’t actually a street.
The previous City Council had been supportive of downtown development and of the proposed public-private partnerships to build the new parking decks. But nobody is certain if that support will carry over to the new City Council with new members.
Then the bids for the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts are supposed to be awarded either at the Dec. 19 meeting or at a special meeting held that week. The bids have reportedly been opened and the low bidder was T.A. Loving Company at about $56 million. That bid is in line with the estimates.
Initially The Tanger was approved by a 7-to-2 vote by the City Council, with Councilmembers Abuzuaiter and Wilkins voting no. Since then Wilkins hae generally voted in favor of the motions concerning The Tanger and Abuzuaiter hae cast the lone no vote.
Since the last meeting, Hightower has raised questions about the Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise percentages that are associated with The Tanger. Hightower generally votes no on projects where the percentages don’t meet her own personal standard, regardless of whether the contractor has met the specified goal or not.
So by the end of the month, the new City Council will have cast some votes crucial to continued downtown development and people should have a good idea of where this new City Council stands.