Greensboro at-large Councilman Danny Thompson, who is seeking reelection this year, visited the offices of YES! Weekly last week.
“What happened five weeks ago is the kind of change rarely seen in a generation,” Danny Thompson said, after being sworn in as an at-large Greensboro City Council member in December 2009. “I’ve been asked more than once: How did we do it? And it’s simple, really. You see, we knew then what we know now: That the real powers of this city are non in this council, but rather they’re out there in the historic neighborhoods, and yes, the annexed communities. They’re the real estate agents, insurance agents, the preachers and the teachers.”
Thompson, a personal care company owner with no previous experience in elected office, had won his seat by placing third in the at-large balloting as a political conservative with a friendly demeanor.
The November 2009 municipal election did signal dramatic change in Greensboro: Bill Knight, a retired CPA running on a conservative platform defeated mayoral incumbent Yvonne Johnson. Nancy Vaughan, a former councilwoman with support in both conservative and progressive camps, was sworn in as mayor pro tem on the basis of receiving the largest number of votes in the at-large balloting. And Jim Kee was elected to fill the seat opened in District 2, which covers the northeast section of the city, through the retirement of Goldie Wells.
A resident of the Cardinal area near Piedmont Triad International Airport, Thompson found in Kee someone who was interested in building relationships across the city, and the two have often remarked about their mutual respect. And though no one doubted Thompson’s conservative credentials, his personal approach seemed to be something of a departure from the contentious governing style of council members on both sides of a bitter political fight earlier that year that was resolved with a decision to fire a former city manager.
Thompson’s first act as a council member was to make a motion to rescind a financing arrangement to use hotel-motel tax funds to pay for a new aquatic center that had been made by the previous council only hours earlier. Ultimately, the financing arrangement was approved, with Vaughan casting the tie-breaking vote.
Thompson said in a recent interview that he didn’t think it was the right time for the city to go into debt by financing the aquatic center, which is part of the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. Yet Thompson breaks ranks with fellow conservatives who call for the coliseum to be privatized or complain that it constantly runs deficits.
“There’s other things that we fund that we don’t bring the value to the stakeholder,” Thompson said. “Like a neighborhood pool: It’s not going to pay for itself with the fees that we charge. Or the golf course at Gillespie Park.”
Early in his first term Thompson angered some conservatives by withdrawing support for Knight’s initiative to move the speakers-from-the-floor segment of beginning of the council meeting to the end.
“Danny Thompson is a complete disappointment,” complained Tony Wilkins, a Republican active in municipal politics, in a February 2010 blog comment. “I apologize for my mistake in supporting him. A goose on a duck pond from the first meeting…. Watch for the lefties, even in this blogosphere, to start going goo goo gaga over him.”
Still later, Thompson made the successful motion to move speakers from the floor back to the end of the meeting, fulfilling the mayor’s original wish.
Later in 2010, Thompson provided leadership to try to win a contest among cities to land a Google Fiber project that would bring ultra-high-speed internet to Greensboro. The effort failed, but earned the councilman some goodwill among a wide range of constituents. More controversial was a lengthy inquiry into whether computer users were using downtown library computers to view internet pornography.
Yet in the past year, all of those issues have been overshadowed by a polarizing fight on council about whether the White Street Landfill should be reopened to municipal solid waste. Thompson has taken a series of votes, along with Knight, Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw and Councilwoman Trudy Wade, to reopen the landfill, squaring off against at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins, District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small and Kee, his old ally.
Then, as now, the landfill was a major issue in the municipal election.
“I would not be in favor of opening the White Street Landfill to household waste,” Thompson told voters during a candidate forum sponsored by the Guilford County Unity Effort two years ago. He added that he was also uncomfortable with continuing to transport Greensboro waste out of town. It was the latter point that he stressed in paid political advertisement in The Rhinoceros Times, a newspaper with a conservative slant and a track record of helping candidate win office through its endorsements.
Asked in an interview whether his actions in office compared with his statements on the campaign trail should be viewed as breaking a campaign promise or misleading voters, Thompson ignored the question.
“It looks like what we can do is for a short time we can use White Street,” he said. “That leverages our position where we can show Rockingham and Randolph that we do have the will to use our assets for leverage. I do believe that if we can find a regional equity solution where we can still have control over the byproducts of our waste stream that would, that’s what we should pursue.”
Randolph County Public Works Director David Townsend has told YES! Weekly that he expects the county’s regional landfill to be open in 18 months to two years.
Thompson expressed skepticism about Randolph County’s ability to get a landfill permitted in a timely fashion when asked to explain why he is intent on reopening the White Street Landfill instead of immediately entering talks with the neighboring county. The councilman has said in the past that he would prefer to be an equity partner rather than a customer of a regional landfill.
At one point in the interview, he expressed disinterest in the idea altogether, stating, “I don’t think it does us any good to move the landfill from Montgomery County from to Randolph County.”
Thompson dismissed concerns that reopening the landfill will adversely affect the health of residents who live nearby, stating, “The state and the county checked it out.”
In fact, a study released by the NC Division of Public Health in June stated that “no known release from the White Street Landfill has been identified that explains the elevated rate of pancreatic cancers in the community.” In July, the Greensboro Human Relations Commission issued a resolution recommending against reopening the landfill, based, in part, “on inconclusive health information related to the White Street Landfill.”
Thompson also rejected any correlation between business openings and closings in the area of the landfill. For example, the Carolina Circle Mall closed while the landfill was open, and a Wal-Mart Supercenter and Lowe’s store opened nearby after the landfill closed.
“Businesses came and businesses left while the landfill was open,” Thompson said.
Thompson also cast aside the notion that he needed the votes of District 2 residents to win reelection in a citywide contest.
“If you get ’em all from one district, good luck with that,” he said.
As to the outpouring of anger among residents in both east and west Greensboro over the proposed reopening of the landfill, Thompson said he is not convinced that it represents disunity in the city, and sidestepped a question about how the next council – whomever is elected – should begin a process of healing.
“Let’ see how the voters — they can voice their appreciation or lack thereof,” he said. “I’m going to let the voters judge me.”
The candidate said part of council’s role is to provide leadership on land-use planning, and in this regard he said he values input from stakeholders such as developers and residents.
“There’s no doubt it’s easier to service a higher-density area,” Thompson said. “You have to weigh that with the rights of property owners.”
As an example he noted that homeowners objected to part of the new Land Development Ordinance approved by the council.
“They didn’t want to have so many cul de sacs,” Thompson said. “The residents like cul de sacs, and they’re willing to pay a premium for them.”
The idea of a special tax on prepared foods, which has stirred up anxiety in some circles of the development community, provides a window into Thompson’s philosophy on revenue.
“I’m not going to vote for a tax increase unless people want to impose it on themselves,” he said.
Despite the current controversy over the landfill, Thompson said he should be recognized in his first term for building alliances and engineering compromises.
In 2010, for the first time in years, the city council voted to cut property taxes. Thompson said he built an alliance with Vaughan to create a majority in support of the decrease, which was initially opposed by some members who didn’t support funding for an economic development group while others gave the budget a cool reception because they didn’t want to reduce spending.
On the management of the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market, Thompson initially supported a time-out when he discovered the two finalists for the contract strongly correlated with two factions that have been fighting over the direction of the market. Ultimately, Thompson joined Vaughan and fellow at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins in approving a nonprofit established by longtime market customers to operate the market, disappointing Mayor Knight and Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw, who favored a group led by farmers to run the market.
Thompson found himself on the losing side of a vote to approve a weatherization program funded by the US Energy Department. But concerns raised by council members resulted in changes to the program, and a revised proposal was unanimously approved by council in June.
“I didn’t see that as a viable program [initially],” Thompson said. “It was through my efforts that we changed it around. Now, more than a thousand people will get grants. The Obama administration said the new plan was a better plan that than the original plan.”
The current council has taken some heat for not passing a resolution outlining its position on a bill in the NC General Assembly that ultimately outlawed the city’s proactive rental inspection program.
“I don’t get into the General Assembly,” Thompson said. “I don’t know that that’s our charter to take positions pro or con on General Assembly legislation.”
Thompson said he draws a distinction between the rental inspection legislation and the city of Greensboro’s efforts to obtain a delay in implementation of the Jordan Lake Rules, which will impose costs on the city and on developers to restrict nutrient runoff into the Haw River for the purpose of cleaning up Jordan Lake.
“We and many other cities were asking for relief,” he said. “One is a law; the other is pending legislation. We were asking for some time. Do you understand the difference?”
As an individual council member, Thompson has not been shy about taking positions on pending legislation before the General Assembly, typically siding with fellow Republicans.
“Having studied both sides of the issue, I will stand with President Pro Tem Senator Phil Berger (my state senator) and Senator Tillman (co-sponsor) in proudly promoting this legislation which 1) provides for more tree planting funds along state highways, 2) includes stiffer penalties for sign owners who cut down trees without a permit, 3) creates jobs and economic development – 2 of the 3 priorities of our city council, 4) reduces burdensome state regulations on business and 5) is supported by the NC Wildlife Habitat Foundation, Duke Children’s Hospital and the ALS Association,” Thompson wrote in a March 2011 e-mail to fellow council members.
Vaughan, who is married to a Democratic state senator, retorted, “Danny, I believe this is an issue of sovereignty and the state’s willingness to overreach in its control over our (the city of Greensboro’s) ability to shape and enact ordinances that we deem reasonable and proper.”
Thompson said he also takes pride in an effort, though ultimately unsuccessful, to persuade the University of North Carolina to locate a pharmacy school in Greensboro.
“The good book says we’re there to fight the battle,” he said. “The outcome doesn’t matter as much. The victory will be in the serving.”