The Tuesday, May 2 City Council meeting was a sad night for Greensboro and a humiliating night for the City Council.
The City Council was forced to leave the dais by an unruly crowd, and councilmembers only returned after the chambers had been cleared – and they then hurriedly adjourned the meeting.
This City Council talks a lot about economic development and jobs. Every economic developer for a rival city has probably already emailed videos of that meeting to any corporation considering locating in Greensboro. If there are classes on how to conduct a public meeting, a video of this meeting will be used as an example of what not to do.
The City Council faced a Council Chambers filled with angry and unruly people upset about the multiple criminal charges filed against Jose Charles, a 15-year-old who was arrested July 4, 2016 near Center City Park.
Many elected bodies face angry and unruly crowds at their meetings. Few elected bodies do what the City Council did under the lack of leadership provided by Mayor Nancy Vaughan. When faced with an unruly crowd, this council turned and ran out the back door like chickens being chased by a fox, not even taking the time to vote on the motion to recess the meeting.
The City Council Chambers is a place where the business of the people of Greensboro – all of the people of Greensboro – is done. It doesn’t belong to those who yell the loudest and refuse to follow the laws governing behavior at public meetings, except it did on Tuesday night.
The crowd was unruly from the opening gavel. People, including Irving Allen and Lewis Pitts, insisted on shouting at the City Council from their seats. A few people in the crowd shouted down Vaughan. Then they shouted down Councilmember Sharon Hightower. And finally they refused to be quiet and allow Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson to speak. Since Yvonne Johnson was first elected to the City Council in 1993 and was elected as Greensboro’s first black mayor, it was particularly notable that even she was shouted down.
Vaughan ordered Allen to be removed from the Council Chambers because he refused to stop shouting from his seat. Allen didn’t want to leave. Instead of forcing Allen and the others who were shouting to leave so the business of the city could be conducted, the City Council left.
Police Chief Wayne Scott said that at that point in the meeting he advised Vaughan that it would be better for the council to leave the room and clear the chambers in an orderly fashion rather than try to remove individuals, since so many were standing and shouting.
Vaughan said that the meeting was recessed, but no official vote was taken. Councilmember Mike Barber made a motion to recess and then it looked like councilmembers got up and left. Several councilmembers confirmed that they didn’t vote and that to their knowledge no vote was called for.
Because Vaughan refused to control the meeting, of the 23 speakers she said had signed up to speak to the City Council and the public about their concerns, only four were allowed to speak before the council left the meeting and the police cleared the chamber. The council came back to an empty chamber and adjourned the meeting without attempting to take up any more business.
Several city councilmembers had statements about the Charles incident that they wanted to make to the public. They were not allowed to do so because Vaughan refused to take control of the meeting. Instead, Allen, Pitts, Nelson Johnson and his followers were allowed to take over the meeting.
About 30 minutes after the council scurried off the dais, the police cleared the chambers of everyone, and only then, when the Council Chambers were completely empty, did the City Council find the nerve to return to adjourn the meeting.
Since this was in no way a public meeting, and no one other than city councilmembers and city staff was present, the City Council adjourned in a closed and illegal meeting.
Not being able to control a meeting is not one of the exceptions for which a public body is allowed to close a meeting to the public. There is nothing in the open meetings law that states that if the mayor is scared to enforce the law (it is a misdemeanor to disrupt a meeting), that the City Council can close the meeting to the public. The law assumes that the presiding officer, in this case the mayor, will perform her duty. If the mayor chooses to violate her responsibility to the people that she represents, the law does not allow the mayor to hold a meeting with 20 police officers physically keeping the public from attending the meeting.
The Charles issue should have been and could have been resolved at the May 2 meeting.
The City Council had spent five-and-a-half hours in closed sessions on Monday, May 2 and Tuesday May 3 viewing police body-worn camera videos, as well as reviewing the case file.
The City Council was prevented by court order from talking about the video, which has been noted by councilmembers throughout the controversy.
City Councilmember Justin Outling was disturbed that, because of the way the City Council meeting was recessed and then adjourned, he and other councilmembers were prevented from telling the public of their decision after viewing the videos.
Outling said after the meeting, “There is a court order that prevents us from talking about what was on the video. But the vast majority of the council agrees with and supports the findings and conclusions of the city manager and the police chief.”
Both the city manager and the police chief reportedly upheld the charges against Charles and found that the officers violated no laws or city policies in the arrest.
Outling said, “The public ultimately just wants to know where the City Council stands.”
He said, “My preference was certainly to come back to the meeting and continue the city’s business. It was a regrettable decision to adjourn.”
Outling said that dealing with issues like the Charles case takes far too much staff time and is preventing the staff from working on other issues like the city budget, which will be introduced at the City Council meeting on May 18.
He said it was unfortunate that the public couldn’t view the police body-worn camera video, but said that is the current state law and it is out of the control of the City Council.
Outling said there were a number of issues he was working on that have been stalled because the Charles case has taken so much staff and City Council time. One he noted was a cite-and-release policy where, for minor crimes, people receive a citation and are released at the scene without having to go to the magistrate’s office.
The City Council met in closed session to view the video and review the file from 5 to 8:30 p.m. on Monday, May 2. That meeting was recessed and called back into session on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. The council in closed session continued to view the videos and review the case file until about 4:30 p.m., when the City Council took up economic development and a legal case in closed session.
That closed session was recessed at 5:30 p.m. to be called back into session at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 3, which was later changed to 3 p.m.
What Outling said was that with all the time and effort that the City Council put into looking into the case by watching the videos and reviewing the case file, it was regrettable that no announcement was made at the meeting to the public about what the City Council had determined.
Outling said that after reviewing the file and watching the video, “I have zero doubt about the determination of the city manager and the police chief.”
Outling noted that when this City Council viewed the police body-worn camera video of the arrest of Dejuan Yourse, the council didn’t hesitate to say that arrest was wrong and “did everything in its power to make that situation right.”
He said that the current City Council has not hesitated to hold the police accountable when it was deemed necessary. But, he added, “We have to make that determination based on the facts.”
He said the City Council was going to have to change the way it handles business so that it will be able to do the business of the city because what they are doing now isn’t working.
Outling didn’t say it, but the City Council agenda is being driven by Nelson Johnson, who comes up with an issue, floods the council chambers with people, many of them disruptive, and then the council spends the next days, weeks or months deciding what to do about whatever the issue Johnson has brought before them.
Johnson is the chief instigator behind the whole Charles arrest controversy. And what anyone who has been watching the City Council knows is that regardless of what happens with Charles, Nelson Johnson will find another issue he can use to attack the Greensboro Police Department. With the big win on Tuesday night, the City Council is looking at more, not fewer disruptions.
Outling and other councilmembers are considering not having speakers from the floor on non-agenda items during business meetings, but instead holding one meeting every month where speakers would be heard. The solution would allow the City Council to conduct business, but it would also allow Nelson Johnson and his followers to continue to disrupt meetings.
Outling said that a dozen or so people prevented the City Council from getting its work done this week. He said, “This is unacceptable.”
Outling noted that Greensboro was the first city in the state to provide all of its officers with body-worn cameras, and the first to have a policy on viewing body-worn camera videos. The city policy was rendered moot when the state legislature passed a law governing the viewing of those videos.
Although the City Council’s actions on Tuesday night were embarrassing, the Greensboro Police Department did a remarkable job of controlling the situation.
The police allowed the crowd to sit in the city councilmembers chairs on the dais and make speeches, sing, pray and chant for about 30 minutes. At that point a police sergeant made the announcement that the building was being closed and everyone had to leave.
About a dozen police officers lined up against the windows on the interior side of the building and started walking down each row of seats asking people to leave.
The officer walking the row behind press row said to a woman who was standing, “Ma’am, I know you’re trying to listen but I need you to walk this way. Let’s walk this way.” And when she started moving toward the door, he said, “I appreciate that.”
Similar interactions between police and the crowd were taking place all over the room. It helped that Nelson Johnson asked everyone to obey the police officers and leave the building.
In clearing the room there were no police officers shouting orders. The police were calm, deliberate and forceful. They didn’t even yell at a reporter who had trouble packing up all his stuff in a timely manner and was the last to leave the chamber.
Most people walked down the steps and left the building without incident, but a few young people gathered at the bottom of the steps and were intent on being arrested. The police officers gave the people some time and gave the group’s leaders some space to talk to them. One was asked if they were really prepared to be arrested and the young man replied that they had been preparing for a month. However, after a few minutes, the small group agreed to leave the building without being arrested.
The group marched to Center City Park and later eight were arrested for blocking Friendly Avenue by sitting in the street.
Chief Scott and four deputy police chiefs were on hand in city hall to direct the operation, and having senior command staff onsite made a huge difference. But it is also an indication of the toll the disruptions of City Council meetings are taking on city staff. The police command staff has better things to do than direct crowd control at City Council meetings.