Greensboro mayoral candidates differ on police, landfill, transit
Yvonne Johnson and Bill Knight spoke to voters at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad.
The two candidates for mayor of Greensboro appeared today together for their second forum of the campaign. The hour-long event was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad, and took place at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.
The candidates acknowledged that the city faces many challenges, among them the credibility of its police department, dysfunctional government and economic difficulty, but differed in both tone and substance.
“I’ve weathered the storms,” incumbent Yvonne Johnson said, “and I have come through almost all of the tests.” She called for “government that is inclusive, effective and efficient,” and highlighted a need for “public safety and restoring confidence in our police department.”
Challenger Bill Knight, a retired certified public accountant, said, “I know how to build teamwork, how to build consensus. I know how to get focused on financial issues.” He added, “I want to bring the discussion of business back to council chambers that has been missing for years.”
Fault lines emerged in the candidates’ responses to questions about stabilizing the position of city manager, addressing problems within the police department and restoring civility among members of council.
Yvonne Johnson seemed to acknowledge that the sitting council fell short in its supervision of the previous manager, Mitchell Johnson.
“When I became mayor we set goals and objectives, and many of those we followed up on, but we need to be vigilant about doing that in conjunction with the city manager,” she said.
Knight suggested that as mayor he would expect the new manager, Rashad Young, to be accountable to the council.
“The city manager answers to the city council,” Knight said, “and in about a year I’ll be able to give you a report on his performance.” Then the candidate underscored that one of the manager’s key responsibilities will be the police department.
“We’ve got some serious problems in the police department that need to be addressed,” he said.
“I would like to be sure going forward that as we select new administration into the police department command group that we’re doing it based on ability and qualifications,” Knight said. “We have had one chief selected because of race. We’ve had another interim chief — don’t know what his situa — We had another chief who was basically forced out on racial issues. And we have a chief today who, in my opinion, is there primarily because of race.”
Robert White, who is black, resigned as Greensboro’s police chief in 2002 to lead the Louisville Metro Police Department. Interim Chief Anthony Scales, who is black, ran the department prior to the appointment of Chief David Wray, who is white. Following Wray’s resignation in 2006, Chief Tim Bellamy, who is black, took command of the department.
Johnson passed up the opportunity to respond to Knight’s claim, instead saying that she favors requiring officers to undergo sensitivity training. But her closing statement included a recurring theme of her campaign, which could be considered a retort. “I think that people don’t want a politics of division,” she said. They want a government that serves them.”
The sitting mayor drew laughter with her response to a question about what steps might be taken to make relations between council members more cordial.
“Invoke God in His infinite glory,” she quipped.
In a more serious tone, she continued, “I think people ought to really look at who they elect and how well they will work with the group. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be passionate about your position. But I think it does mean you want a person who respects the human dignity of everybody.”
Knight sharply riposted: “I can’t agree more. We need to elect a new city council. It’s about leadership: setting the attitude.” He continued, “We need a mayor who runs the meeting according to Robert’s Rules of Order. That means everybody’s heard, you make a decision and move on.”
Knight also suggested that his status as a retiree would give him more time for the job.
“I will be able to be a full-time mayor,” he said,
A nonprofit executive director, Johnson defended her work ethic and commitment.
“I’ve been a full-time mayor, and work another part-time job,” she said. “I work about 45 hours a week for the city of Greensboro. And that includes Saturday and Sunday.”
Johnson also quarreled with Knight over her exploration of waste-disposal options for the city.
“One of the things that I have been trying to do is to educate and expose council to the various technological advances that turn waste into energy,” she said. "And I know that on another occasion Mr. Knight has said $500 million. I’ve never advocated to spend $500 million. I did want to expose people to what was available, and I have three other [informational sessions] coming up.”
While not going so far as to advocate reopening the landfill to household waste, Knight indicated he has a concern with costs by stating that the cost of transporting the city’s waste down to a landfill in Montgomery County “may be as much as $42 a ton.” He added, “I would also want to explore outsourcing, having an outside contractor own and operate the landfill.”
The candidates briefly discussed the idea of linking Greensboro to other North Carolina cities by light rail.
“I think it is the way to go,” Johnson said, adding that she’s been impressed with rail transit on the few occasions when she’s visited Europe.
“In the short term, no,” Knight said, adding that Greensboro has a good bus system that is heavily subsidized by taxpayers.”
On the topic of job creation, Knight suggested that he would be more aggressive about representing the city to business and economic development leaders than the sitting mayor. Johnson outlined a handful of principles and initiatives.
Johnson made a plug for buying locally, and reducing regulations on small businesses. She said the city is considering collaborating with Guilford County to give tax credits to small businesses that expand their business.
“There are areas of our cities that are depressed and have been overlooked by businesses,” Johnson added. “We need to incentivize some of those areas.”
On one significant issue, the two agreed. In the wake of the city’s expansion over more than 4,000 additional acres absorbing upwards of 10,000 people over the past two years, both candidates indicated they have little taste for more annexation.
“I think we have a fairly good annexation policy,” Johnson said, adding that “if I could offer an improvement to that policy, is that when we annex is that we are sure we could give the services that we say we’re going to give — fire, police, waste pickup and so forth. Even, I think we ought to look at and let people know how far out public transportation is going to be. I think we don’t do that as well as we could do that. Many of the annexations we make are because people have signed on for our water and sewer and have agreed to be annexed.”
Knight said, “When we’re looking at stretched, strained police resources and perhaps fire resources, we need to look at that closely.”
Both candidates said they welcomed an ethics challenge made by at-large candidate Nancy Vaughan to disclose assets for the purpose of identifying potential conflicts of interest. The two also concurred in supporting state legislation enabling local governments to publicly finance their elections.
Knight noted that he ran an at-large campaign on about $15,000 in 2007, and stated, “I think the mayor raised and spent about $100,000.”
“I did not spend any $100,000,” Johnson protested.
Johnson actually raised $106,053 and spent $98,480, according to her 2007 campaign finance reports. (A recent analysis by YES! Weekly actually found that a tally of the candidate’s itemized expenditures fell short by $2,484 from her reported totals. This reporter has submitted an analysis to campaign treasurer Patsye Drew, and requested clarification.)
Both candidates presented themselves as capable stewards of the taxpayer’s money.
Knight said that eight or nine years the city had a “very capable internal audit director.”
“That individual was pretty much forced out, and I won’t go into the politics of that,” he said. “I would like to beef that up. I would like to see strong oversight. I have never seen a budget that you can’t find a place where you can cut expenditures.”
Johnson said other cities have created a position for an inspector general.
“I would really like to see Greensboro have a qualified person do an evaluation of our efficiency,” she said.
Knight reiterated a challenge to Johnson to hold three debates with him. He emphasized that their meeting today was merely a forum.