Center City Park was a pleasant scene on a Wednesday afternoon. The sun shone, but the temperature had begun to cool in the waning days of summer. Every once in awhile the breeze picked up the spray from the fountain and blew a mist towards visitors seated along the promenade. A curious toddler wandered over from a nearby table and poked at a stranger, her mother not far off.
The scene was a gentle mix of humanity in a city that presently seems to be as racially divided as ever, that seems to be coming apart at the seams with distrust and mutual recrimination. Like most days, the park felt like the city’s living room.
Center City Park is a symbol of all that is going right with the city, but also the focus of some anxiety. It has been widely reported that a man was violently set upon by a group of youth, but speculation about “flash mobs” and social media as means have been somewhat discredited.
Still, young people acting up in London, Philadelphia and Chicago seems like a distant phenomena. In Greensboro, it’s adults on city council that is causing distress.
“I’m sure it’s compounded when they see elected officials acting poorly,” said Nancy Vaughan, mayor pro tem of the Greensboro City Council.
Vaughan was the top vote-getter among the at-large candidates in 2009. Frustrated with council last December, she announced that she would not seek reelection. But then, earlier this summer, as the council became even more deeply polarized, she announced that she would run again after all.
Vaughan is the first to acknowledge that things aren’t going well on council, in the city, or the nation, for that matter, but she still holds a fundamentally optimistic outlook about Greensboro.
“Economically, times are tougher now than I can ever remember,” she said. “We have a great community. We still have a AAA credit rating. We still have a high quality of life. There are a lot of great things to do in Greensboro that are supported by city services."
Raleigh and Charlotte have their own appeal, but Vaughan has no trouble selling Greensboro.
“We do have wonderful parks and recreation,” she said. “It’s a great place to raise a family. It’s a great cheap-date place. The school system is improving. We’ve got an airport that is an economic development hub. If you love sports – any sports – Greensboro is the place to be. We have a very ready, willing and able workforce.”
Another bright spot is Honda Aircraft Co., whose corporate leaders have indicated a strong interest in expanding at Piedmont Triad International Airport in exchange for $523,750 in incentives. The vote last night was a rare instance of unanimity by the council on an important issue.
Vaughan said she and her husband were impressed by the company’s global exposure during a trip to London last Christmas.
“We saw a full-page ad for HondaJet in the Financial Times,” she recalled. “It said, ‘For more information, call 336….’”
It’s easy to lose sight of all the positives during city council meetings, where petty accusations fly, blindsides are routine and shouting matches are not unheard of. One word characterizes city council: Dysfunction. But it didn’t start with the current council, which was seated in 2009.
“When I ran last time, people said that was a big issue,” Vaughan recalled. “I said the only thing I could do is control my own speech and how I act. You really can’t control other people. I’m really proud of the way I’ve conducted myself. I’m not divisive. I’m not nasty. I make an effort to include others. I treat fellow council members with respect. Not everyone is like that.”
Vaughan is also the rare council member that is not entrenched in her viewpoint. An example of her flexibility came up when she led the council in reconsidering a redistricting plan proposed by District 4 Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw following a public outcry about how it moved a high-performing majority white precinct that hadn’t supported Rakestraw in the last election into a minority-majority district.
“Clearly, when you’ve got a large outcry, you need to respond to that,” Vaughan said. “When I look at the way the county and state were redistricted, I am very proud of how we did it with the city.”
No issue has consumed as much time and caused as much heartache as the White Street Landfill over the past two years. Vaughan has been unable to participate in votes or deliberation on the matter because her husband serves as legal counsel for Waste Industries, a company that was in the running for the contract before council voted last night to initiate contract negotiations with Gate City Waste Services. But, as a former council member, Vaughan voted in 2001 to close the landfill to household waste.
“When it was closed to municipal solid waste, I think we made a pact with the neighborhood,” she said, “and they should have been able to expect that would be respected.”
She added, “Why are we going to take our biggest asset and fill it up, and lose all of our potential bargaining power?”
Some might question Vaughan’s ability to lead considering her conflict of interest on this most critical issue.
She responded by noting that she lead efforts to rewrite a city ordinance so that city staff would be required to obtain council approval before changing conditions in rezoning decisions. The issue came up when a developer changed plans and began building assisted living homes after receiving approval to build upscale town homes.
While Vaughan was not on council at the time the body took action on the matter in 2009, she strongly advocated for the restoration of the protest petition in Greensboro.
Under current zoning, phases VI and V at the White Street Landfill can only be used for fill dirt, excluding use as a landfill. In addition to obtaining permits from the NC Department of Natural Resources, the city council would also have to hold a public hearing and take a vote to rezone the tracts before the city could begin accepting household waste in the two areas.
“At that point, it would fall under the protest petition,” Vaughan said. “Residents with adjacent property would have the opportunity to file for the protest petition. If that’s the case, in order to use IV and V they will have to have a super majority…. That means they need seven affirmative votes. Do you think there are seven council members who would vote for that?"
Four members of the nine-member council have recently prevailed to reopen the landfill against three members opposed. Councilman Zack Matheny, like Vaughan, has been conflicted out.
“While I have been very frustrated,” Vaughan said, “things I have done in other areas will help in the long term.”
Looking back on the past term, Vaughan said she is proud the council was able to bridge a budget shortfall without significant impact to city services. She said she wants to continue to control municipal spending.
“Our [maintenance and operations] budget could probably be thinned out,” she said. “I think there’s a little fat in those budgets. I’d like to make sure staff is operating as leanly as possible.”
She said she has been disappointed that the city and county have not been able to identify cost savings through combined services, such as planning and zoning. In fact, the city and county have dissolved a joint water and sewer trust fund. Efforts to divide the funds have been stalled because of foot-dragging by the county manager in coming to an agreement to share the cost of an audit, in Vaughan’s opinion.
“Many times we are being double-dipped on our taxes,” she said. “I think it’s going to require regular people going to the county commission and saying they need to give us our fair share."
Now, with a new jail set to open in downtown Greensboro soon, county leaders have asked the city for help to pay for a new parking garage.
“I don’t think we should be that anxious to jump into a partnership,” Vaughan said, “when they haven’t shown good faith with the partnership they have.”
Going forward, Vaughan said she wants to find a way to help the city improve its brand penetration, pointing out that outside of Guilford County many people have trouble distinguishing Greensboro from Greenville, SC or Greenville, NC. And the Piedmont Triad as a regional descriptor does not leave a distinct impression.
And she would like to encourage businesses, particularly ones employing 20 people or less, in more tangible ways.
To that end, Vaughan proposes creating a position for a small business liaison. To avoid increasing payroll, she suggested the job could be created by utilizing an existing position in the city’s minority and women business enterprise office.
The city could also create a task force to comb through ordinances and eliminate those that require businesses to go through undue amounts of paperwork without a recognizable public benefit.
She also proposes eliminating fees for business privilege licenses, but acknowledges the city would have to find a way to bridge the gap from the loss of upwards of $3 million in annual revenue.
“What city council can do is make this a business-friendly community,” Vaughan said, “and let people know we are open for business.”