In the first of several promised town-hall meetings Greensboro Mayor Yvonne Johnson gave a soothing performance emphasizing mutual respect while avoiding specifics as the city barrels into a political crisis threatening the city manager’s job over a botched public records request related to the investigative techniques used by an indicted police officer.
The mayor answered questions submitted on note cards at the forum hosted tonight by the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress at West Market Street United Methodist Church.
One audience member said that based on a trip he took to Israel with David Wray, he did not believe the former police chief was a racist, and asked if Johnson agreed that the city should bring to light the real “issues” that led to his departure.
“We have listened to the tapes of Chief Wray in his last meeting with the city manager,” Johnson said. “It boils down to what you believe — the tapes or if you think there’s something else there that explains what happened…. The question is whose truth? And what is the truth? I’ve listened intensely to the tapes. I have read intensely the documents. But that’s all I have. That’s what I read.”
Many of the questions revealed skepticism towards city leaders’ handling of information that has drizzled out about the police controversy that began with Wray’s resignation under duress in January 2006.
Asked whether she trusted information gathered by the Raleigh consulting group Risk Management Associates and by the city’s legal department, Johnson replied, “I read the report and I listened to the tapes and so forth. If there’s other information that I don’t have, I would read that too.”
Another audience member suggested Wray’s resignation was somehow connected to the city’s support for Project Homestead, a housing nonprofit that imploded in financial scandal in late 2003.
“I have no idea about the latter question, if Chief Wray was interested,” Johnson answered. “I don’t know. I know that it went to the district attorney. I know that we turned in all the information that we had, and the district attorney’s report was that there was no criminal activity. I know that our housing department has worked to clear up as much of that as possible and to sell property and so forth, and I don’t know about Chief Wray.”
In some instances, Johnson seemed to not demonstrate a thorough grasp of the questions.
Answering a question about whether the city has evidence that African-American leaders were secretly recorded by a police employee for a reason other than their minority status, Johnson responded: "I have heard that they were recorded. I have heard from some of the leaders that they were recorded. I have not heard any of the recordings."
As early as November 2006, the city manager acknowledged that the recordings were made by a non-sworn employee of the Greensboro Police Department to gather information about a fellow violent crimes task force member from High Point rather than to gather information about black leaders.
The mayor declined to discuss whether the council might ask for Mitchell Johnson’s resignation when the nine-member council holds a special meeting on Thursday.
“There are different opinions and there are different feelings, and we will share those in a proper setting,” she said. “It is a personnel issue. And I’m going to respect the state law on that one. I respect it on all of them.”
One segment of the audience was not assuaged by Johnson’s efforts toward conciliation. Friends and family members of Officer Scott Sanders, a detective assigned to the dismantled special intelligence section under Wray who was indicted last year after being suspended from the force, grumbled as Johnson responded in puzzlement about why Sanders was no longer being paid.
“Oh, that,” Johnson said. “Didn’t he resign?”
Later Annie Cooper, a Guilford County resident whose niece is married to Sanders, said, “I find it appalling that our mayor did not know the name of the officer who was suspended for doing his job.”
After the meeting, she said she confronted Chief Tim Bellamy about the question, and was told that the city stopped paying Sanders and Sgt. Tom Fox once criminal charges were filed against them.
Cooper said the city was hiding information about Lt. James Hinson, one of Sanders’ investigative targets, and about the true use of the so-called “black book.”
“It is a known fact that while [Hinson] was on the city’s payroll he was working at Harris Teeter,” Cooper said. “It is a known fact that he was double-dipping. They just said, ‘There was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.’”
She continued, “The issues with the ‘black book.’ It’s not a black book…. They did not discriminate. They said there were nineteen officers who were on patrol at the time [of an alleged assault against a prostitute]. Why can’t they admit it? They want to save face. They’re still trying to save face. They’re still trying to figure out what to do. They are calling Scott and Tom racist cops. If you were not a criminal, you wouldn’t be under investigation. The book was a legitimate tool. It was not racist.”
The issues raised by Cooper have been exhaustively examined in accounts by YES! Weekly, the News & Record, The Rhinoceros Times and numerous blogs with varying degrees of accuracy, context and thoroughness. The journalistic accounts (1, 2, 3) have themselves come to reflect the deeply polarized state of community discourse.
At the end of the meeting, Rakestraw huddled with Rhinoceros Times Editor John Hammer, along with bloggers Sam Spagnola and Joe Guarino, all of whom have advocated for Mitchell Johnson’s termination.
Mayor Johnson on other topics:
“There are many interest groups represented here, but there are surely some people not represented, either working late or dealing with a crisis, so let’s be a caring community.”
On whether city leaders might sit down with former police Chief David Wray to discuss differences
“I would like nothing more. Is it possible? I think it’s possible.”
On the city’s handling of public records requests
“I think we can do a much better job of communication. If you send me a request for apples and oranges and we just have peaches and oranges, I think we ought to come back to you and say, ‘We don’t have apples. We’re you really looking for peaches and oranges?’ We have to be much more sensitive and considerate. Everything we can share with the public, we ought to do just that.”
On adding sidewalks
“You can’t do a whole city in one year, but over time I think we’ll have a very walkable city.”
On whether she can justifiably call herself a “change agent”
“When we have crises and problems, I have not waited. I have called meetings immediately to do something about the problem. I think we have shared information much more readily, and I have wanted to be part of that.”
On growing resentment of Latinos
“When you peel some stuff back, I think we want the same things. We want to be safe. We want to be able to enjoy our family and friends. We want some good jobs. We want to have a relatively clean and nice city.”
On why the city isn’t more proactive about tackling problems like gangs
“I wish I could answer that question. I don’t know. There are some things I just don’t know. I think this particular group is responding faster…. Sometimes we don’t realize in the beginning that something is going to mushroom. Not making excuses. Just human nature. I think we’ll be more proactive.”
On why the city doesn’t have nicer bus stops
“I’d love to see the little covered stops. Costs money. I don’t want to raise your taxes. It’s a balancing act. If a group wanted to take responsibility for a particular corner, that would be great. We could have a partnership with our faith groups.”
On recreational opportunities for children
“I think we’re open to doing as much as we can with the money we’ve got.”
On the use of Tasers against school children
“I’ve thought about Tasers. I’d rather not do it to our kids.”
On noise restrictions
“We say, and I think we believe, that we want the best and brightest students to stay in Greensboro. Young people need something to do. I think we need to be flexible. When we have [a city-sponsored] New Year’s party, I know that’s going to be loud.”
On the prospect of getting a grocery store downtown
“What I hope is it’s not a superstore. I don’t think we need a Harris Teeter or a Food Lion. No disrespect to Harris Teeter or Food Lion. I think we need a more quaint market downtown, something that’s tasteful and fits the architecture, something at Bellemeade and something at the intersection of South Elm and Lee streets.”
On promoting alternative transportation
“Gas prices keep going up, and a lot us are going to be on buses and bicycles, including myself.”