At 6:38 p.m. during the middle of the Greensboro City Council meeting that began at 5:30 on Monday, August 6, the council, staff, journalists and others in attendance found themselves outside standing on the patio.
The fire alarm in city hall went off during the meeting and before people were quite sure what was happening, everyone was quickly and efficiently escorted outside.
No smoke, and no apparent danger, made it a nice jaunt outside to stand in the pleasant evening air.
It was the first time in anyone’s memory that a City Council meeting had been interrupted by a fire alarm.
Meetings have been interrupted by loud unruly protestors, and once the City Council got up and walked off the dais allowing the protestors to take over the room, sit in the council seats and hold their own meeting, but never by a fire alarm.
As it turned out the building wasn’t on fire, although one anonymous source said if city hall were on fire, they shouldn’t call the Fire Department. It is considered by many to be one of the ugliest buildings in town.
The fire alarm was set off when a saw being used by construction workers on what is referred to as the Upper Ground floor, but in a normal building would be called the basement, either overheated or otherwise produced enough smoke to set off the smoke detectors and the fire alarm.
After about 20 minutes outside, the all clear was given and the council meeting took up at 6:59, where it left off, with a speaker from the floor about halfway through his five minutes.
The decision had been made to allow the speaker another three minutes to finish up.
The council doesn’t take votes during its monthly town hall type meeting, where the main item on the agenda is speakers from the floor, so there appeared to be no heavy politicking or political deals being made outside during the break.
At the beginning of the meeting, interim Assistant City Manager and Water Resources Department Director Steve Drew gave a report on why the Mitchell Water Treatment Plant had been temporarily closed.
Drew began by saying that as far as the water quality is concerned, “It has been and does exceed all water quality standards.”
The reason the Mitchell Water Treatment Plant, which treats the water from Lake Brandt, was closed was that tests showed that two unregulated contaminants exceeded the federal health advisory level. The recommended maximum for PFOS and PFOA combined is 70 parts per trillion. The testing showed PFOS at 71 parts per trillion and PFOA at 9.
Drew said that the amount was equivalent to one drop in an Olympic-size swimming pool. He also noted that the health advisory is based on a lifetime of consumption and the current belief is that a lifetime of consumption at that level could increase the risk of some diseases like cancer.
Drew said that the city is not required to test for these contaminants but probably will be in the future. So in order to get ahead of the game, the city has been testing for PFOS and PFOA, and twice – in 2014 and this year – has discovered that they exceeded the federal health advisory.
Drew said that since 2014 the city has been looking for the source of the contaminants, which are chemicals used for, among other things, in fire fighting foam. He explained that because the Greensboro reservoirs get water from many small streams instead of one major source, it is more difficult to determine the source of contaminants.
Over years of testing the city has discovered that the level of these contaminants increases during drought periods, so the recent heavy rains may have flushed it out of the system. The city is also now using powdered activated carbon at the Mitchell Water Treatment Plant to remove the contaminants from the water.
The message that Drew repeated several times was that the drinking water was safe and had always been safe, but since the city had the option of closing Mitchell, where the problem was detected, and use other sources, it had done so until the levels could be brought down below the federal health advisory level.
The rest of the meeting was mainly devoted to speakers from the floor who spoke about the Minority and Women Business Enterprise (MWBE) program, which the city is revising.
The city received a new disparity study from Griffin & Strong, a law and public policy consulting firm in Atlanta, in March and is in the process of implementing changes to the MWBE program in keeping with the results and recommendations in that report.
Sondra Wright expressed concern that it was too easy for contractors to meet the “good faith effort” requirements without hiring MWBE subcontractors.
Chuck Byrd said that it appeared the City Council intended to implement a new program without any input from the community.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan said that there would be a public hearing prior to the City Council enacting any changes to the program.
The City Council also heard from members of the Homeless Union about the panhandling ordinance.
The major complaint was that the City Council had rushed into passing a new panhandling ordinance.
It’s difficult to imagine a world in which the action on the ordinance could be considered rushed. After much discussion the ordinance passed for the first time in April. It passed again in May, but didn’t go into effect because it only passed by a 5-to-4 vote. So in June when it could have passed a second time and become law, the council voted to continue the matter and hold five public forums.
It’s also worth noting that there have been speakers from the floor on this issue at the town hall meeting every month. But in July, the City Council finally took action to finish what should have been done in April.
However, Councilmember Sharon Hightower did ask some good questions about the aggressive solicitation ordinance or, to be more precise, ordinances.
The City Council passed the ordinance that was the result of the five public forums and was largely written by attorneys with the law firm Parker Poe. But it only passed by a 5-to-4 vote, which meant it would not become law unless it passed for a second time, leaving the City Council in essentially the same situation it had been in after it passed the aggressive solicitation ordinance in May by a 5-to-4 vote.
Hightower asked if the city passed the Parker Poe ordinance on August 21, if the city would then have two ordinances governing panhandling.
City Attorney Tom Carruthers said that the plan was to repeal the aggressive panhandling ordinance written by staff and then pass the Parker Poe ordinance a second time, so the Parker Poe ordinance would then be the only ordinance governing panhandling on the books.
But, he added, that it was possible the City Council could pass the Parker Poe ordinance without first rescinding the aggressive solicitation ordinance.
In other words, it’s an elective body and anything could happen.
The August 21 meeting is shaping up to be a humdinger. Some of the items expected to be on the agenda include the panhandling ordinance, a public hearing on the proposed new MWBE program, the new Police Citizens Review Board appointments, the contract to build a Westin Hotel on top of the new February One Place parking deck, the proposal to buy and swap property with the Carroll Companies for the Eugene Street parking deck and who knows what else.