The Greensboro City Council has plenty on its plate right now.
City Manager Jim Westmoreland is retiring next month. The budget has to be passed by the end of June, which means devising a budget without the steady hand of Westmoreland on the wheel. Then there is a possibility of 1,000 new jobs – which are the City Council’s to lose – and a lawsuit over the new parking deck and hotel complex planned for February One Place, not to mention $126 million in bonds passed in 2016 waiting for direction from the council on how the money should be spent.
In the midst of all this, Mayor Nancy Vaughan and the majority of the City Council have been obsessing over canceling the scheduled Greensboro Gun and Knife Show at the Greensboro Coliseum in August.
It appears that although there are at least five votes on the council to cancel the gun show, there are two problems – according to both state law and the city charter, the City Council doesn’t have the authority to cancel a gun show at the Coliseum.
It’s a pesky little thing that the City Council needs to have the legal authority to do something, but don’t worry, the City Council is putting forth time and effort to find a way around the North Carolina state statutes and the city charter.
However, anyone who planned to go to the next City Council meeting on Tuesday, March 20, and speak for or against canceling the scheduled gun show, had best change their plans. There will be no public hearing on the gun show scheduled and, in accordance with the new City Council policy, there are no speakers from the floor on non-agenda items at the March 20 meeting. As a result there will be no opportunity for anyone other than councilmembers to speak about the gun show.
Vaughan said people would be given the opportunity to speak on the topic at the Tuesday, April 3 meeting of the City Council.
The whole issue came up shortly after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14. Vaughan posted a piece on her Facebook page that got tremendous response. Vaughan’s first idea was to ban the sale of assault weapons at the gun show in August.
A response to that idea from City Attorney Tom Carruthers informed the City Council that it would be in violation of state law to regulate the types of guns that could be sold at a gun show. But that email to councilmembers left open the possibility of canceling the gun show all together.
This seemed to be the path the City Council was taking and – despite the fact that the City Council has not discussed the gun show at all at either of its two regular meetings on Feb. 20 and March 6 or its work session on March 6 – the five votes had been lined up to cancel the gun show.
On March 8, Carruthers sent the City Council a second email going into more detail about the law concerning municipalities regulating gun sales and the Coliseum and said that the City Council would be in violation of state law if it cancelled the gun show.
According to the city charter, the city manager not the City Council has the sole right and authority to book shows at the Coliseum and, in 1994, the city manager delegated that authority to Coliseum Director Matt Brown.
The City Council cannot revise its own charter. The charter is granted by the North Carolina General Assembly and can only be revised by the General Assembly.
Carruthers in that email states, “It is not advisable for City Council to direct any action regarding gun shows that would interfere with the authority of the Coliseum Director regarding gun shows. This could be viewed as a municipal regulation which applies more strictly to gun shows in violation of state law.”
In the memo on Feb. 16, Carruthers quoted the state statute regarding gun sales, North Carolina General Statutes 14-409.40 (d), “No county or municipality, by zoning or other ordinance, shall regulate in any manner firearms shows with regulations more stringent than those applying to shows of other types of items.”
Vaughan said that the gun show was not scheduled until August so there was no urgency to make a decision. And she hasn’t given up hope that something can be done. Vaughan said, “As of last Wednesday, the city attorney was still telling us, the City Council, that we could cancel the gun show.” She said that then Carruthers sent the email to City Council on Thursday, March 8, saying that cancelling the gun show would violate state law.
Vaughan said, “If we can’t do anything about it this year, we would take the profits from this year’s show and give it to Gun Stoppers, that gets illegal guns off the streets.”
Gun Stoppers is associated with Crime Stoppers, a nonprofit organization that offers rewards for information leading to the arrest of people suspected of committing crimes. Vaughan said the Gun Stopper program had been successful with limited funding.
Vaughan also said that the City Council planned to take whatever action is necessary to prohibit gun shows from being held on city property in the future and that she had not given up hope that something could be done this year.
When asked about cancelling the gun show, City Councilmember Justin Outling said, “I had not come to a position on it. I was battling back and forth.”
He said that because the city attorney believed it would be in violation of state law to cancel the gun show, he would defer to the legal opinion of the city attorney.
Outling is an attorney with Brooks Pierce, he but said that he had not delved into the legality of cancelling a gun show himself.
He added that if the city were to take any action regarding the gun show, “You kind of have to expect you are going to be sued.”
Grassroots North Carolina, a gun rights organization staffed by volunteers, has stated that if Greensboro cancels the gun show, it will sue based on the city violating state law.
Outling said that he thought it was clear that Vaughan was trying to do something and was frustrated by the state law. He said it appeared to him that all she could do was to use her pulpit as mayor to express her views and that is what she was doing.
He said, “People may disagree with her on a policy issue, but she is following the law.”
Vaughan said that she was not opposed to guns, that she owned one and had taken the concealed carry course but had not applied for a concealed carry permit. She added, “My dog’s name is Remington.”
City Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter, who has a concealed carry permit, said she was in favor of cancelling the gun show, “But the state won’t let us not have it.”
She noted that the City Council had not discussed what it was going to do and that if any action were taken, “I would think that Matt Brown would want to weigh in.”
She said that although there had been no formal discussion about the topic, the city councilmembers had “chatted” about it among themselves.
She said, “I think we were all reacting. Sometimes emotions get in the way. I heard a lot of people talking about the gun show.”
She said, “Is this going to help solve the problem of those getting guns to people who shoot high school students? Is stopping the gun show going to stop that? No.”
Abuzuaiter said the attitude on the council was, “We’ve got to do something.”
Abuzuaiter’s husband, Isa, in 2014 was arrested and charged with possession of a stolen weapon and two counts of carrying a concealed gun as the result of a traffic stop. The charges against Isa Abuzuaiter were later dismissed and the stolen gun was returned to its owner. He said he bought the gun from a man who came into his convenience store.
When asked how that incident related to cancelling a gun show, Marikay Abuzuaiter said, “For law abiding citizens I don’t believe in restricting gun sales.”
In other action, the City Council still has not viewed the police body-worn camera video of the incident on July 4, 2016 in downtown Greensboro. Superior Court Judge Susan Bray gave the City Council permission to view the video under the condition that they not speak about it outside of closed session. When an assistant city attorney was sent to court to request that the gag order be lifted and told Bray that the council had not yet viewed the video, Bray gave an abrupt no to the request.
Rather than watch the video first and then decide if they wanted to talk about what they saw, the City Council agreed in closed session last week to appeal Bray’s ruling to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Under the current state law, even a city council has to apply for and receive permission from a Superior Court judge to watch a police body-worn camera video. In this case the Police Citizens Review Board watched the video and recommended no action be taken.
The City Council appears to have an unwritten policy that the only police body-worn camera videos it will view are the ones that Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center brings to their attention. The City Council has never requested to view a police body-worn camera video, except at the urging of Johnson.
It is an interesting policy and perhaps should be put in writing.