“I watch the meetings,” said Tom Phillips when I met him at Caribou Coffee at the Friendly Center yesterday morning. “Don’t hold that against me.”
An understandable vice for someone who served on the Greensboro City Council for 12 years.
Last December, Phillips and his wife were watching a city council meeting on the public access channel. Phillips’ wife asked, “What’s the filing date?”
“You can’t let this go on,” she said.
Phillips said he received phone calls from people in the community urging him to run for city council. Most assumed he would run at large. But Phillips thought about the kind of council he would serve on. He considered what it would be like to serve with incumbent Bill Knight as mayor.
“No, I’ll be butting heads with him every day,” Phillips told himself.
Robbie Perkins, who currently serves at large, had made his intentions to run for mayor known by that time. Phillips said he considers Perkins a friend — they served together on council in the early part of the last decade. Phillips is known to be blunt, but his criticism of Perkins is particularly harsh. Maybe their mutual familiarity makes Phillips comfortable unloading on his old colleague.
“He’s a walking conflict of interest," Phillips said of Perkins. "He’s a member of TREBIC, and when a zoning decision comes up, he’s doing business with these people. If you’re going to be a leader people need to know where you’re going. You can’t do that if you’re always changing your mind.”
Perkins’s commercial real estate company, NAI Piedmont Triad is a member of the Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition, or TREBIC, and Perkins got involved in politics almost three decades ago as a cofounder of the organization’s forerunner. He officially announced his mayoral bid in May at the headquarters of the Greater Greensboro Regional Real Estate Association.
“How much more of a conflict of interest would I have if I was a stockbroker?” Perkins said. “At least I’ve got a four-by-eight sign and I have to declare it. If I’m a stock broker no one’s going to know who my clients are. This is a small town and conflicts of interest are going to come up. If I wasn’t a successful real estate broker, then I wouldn’t have to worry about conflicts of interest. I think it's important to have actively-engaged business people on our city council. Otherwise, you end up with only retired people."
Phillips also charged: “Robbie’s never seen a government program he doesn’t like. I think it will be difficult for him to cut. In many ways it’s tied to his business. He wants things booming.”
Perkins responded, “Go back and look at how many tax increases we’ve had in the past 15 years on anything other than voter-approved bonds. Not many…. I voted for the same budgets Knight did. I voted for many of the same budgets Phillips did.”
Phillips decided about nine months ago that if he was going to run at all, it would be for mayor.
During his tenure on city council, Phillips was known as the reliable conservative. Perkins, Mayor Keith Holliday and Don Vaughan anchored consensus moderate approach that drove council. Yvonne Johnson, Claudette Burroughs-White and Dianne Bellamy-Small, as the three black council members, often took more progressive stands than their white counterparts.
Now, Phillips finds himself at odds with the conservative controlling faction, whose four members were all elected when he retired from council or afterwards. No issue illustrates the gap more than the landfill. While Mayor Bill Knight, Councilman Danny Thompson, Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw and Councilwoman Trudy Wade have methodically pushed to reopen the landfill, Phillips has taken the position that the landfill should remain closed to preserve capacity and give the city leverage in negotiations with private companies on hauling and tipping fees.
In 2001, Phillips was part of a unanimous vote to close the landfill to municipal solid waste. He told me at Caribou Coffee that early in the process it was apparent that there were five votes — enough to pass a motion — to close the landfill, and that he was not one of the five.
He added that it was apparent then that any efforts to pursue permitting for expansion would be put on hold at the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources because of litigation from residents living near the landfill. And, based on previous experience by the city of Charlotte, Phillips and other Greensboro council members decided it was wise to preserve capacity in the White Street Landfill in case of emergency and to avoid being taken advantage of by private haulers and landfill operators. As a concession to residents of northeast Greensboro and their district representative, Burroughs-White, the council zoned phases 4 and 5 so that they could not be used as landfill.
“Are we going to go back on our word?” Phillips asked. “I don’t think we should do that. Go check the property line. One border has people living on it. That means those residents can file a protest petition and require a super majority of council to approve rezoning. That’s dead on arrival. So they ought to investigate that before they do the environmental studies.”
True to his conservative label, Phillips takes the position that city government should reduce spending to prepare for federal and state cutbacks.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a choice if the federal government is going to cut,” he said. “The federal government and state government have been in the habit of giving out things. In fact, the government is going to have to take away things. We’re at the bottom of the food chain. We’re going to see cuts in programs.”
As a concrete example, Phillips said about 90 percent of the money used to pay for new city buses comes from the federal government. Without federal funding, the city would be hard pressed to spend its own money to expand transit.
Considering that high unemployment is anticipated for several years and homelessness is expected to remain a significant challenge, Phillips said he would like to see corporations fill the breach. He acknowledged that city government has little leverage over private-sector spending and investment.
“Corporate America’s got to step up,” said the 65-year-old candidate, who retires this year as a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch. “That’s probably pie in the sky. We assume that if we give them tax cuts, they’ll hire more. That may not be true. They may put it in their pockets and walk away. Unfortunately, a lot of the corporate leadership is gone. Greensboro used to be home to more major corporations. It used to be that companies encouraged their employees to participate in the Jaycees. Corporations talk a good game, but they don’t necessarily give their employees time off to volunteer.”
Phillips acknowledged that many of the city’s major infrastructure projects over the past decade have been financed by foundations and other private sources, including the minor-league baseball stadium, Center City Park and the Downtown Greenway.
The greenway is funded in large part by private foundations, but voters have approved some bond money for it and the city has been asked to contribute some money from its general fund. A section through the Warnersville neighborhood has been completed and construction is underway for a second section between Lee and Spring Garden streets. The promised benefits of the project include tying surrounding neighborhoods into downtown, spurring commercial development, strengthening community and facilitating exercise and leisure activities that will improve residents’ health.
Count Phillips as a skeptic.
“Should the greenway be the biggest priority?” he asked. “They said it would be privately funded, but then they’ve come to council to ask for support.”
Phillips said he would not be inclined to make up for federal and state funding cutbacks by raising taxes on city residents.
“To go in and raise taxes in a bad period in the economy doesn’t make sense,” he said. “In a period of 10 percent unemployment that would put too much of a burden on taxpayers.”
Paying for voter-approved bond projects presents one possible exception to Phillips’ aversion to taxes.
“One thing that drives me crazy is that council puts stuff on a bond referendum and citizens pass it,” he said. “Then they tell staff: ‘We don’t want to raise taxes.’ The natatorium and the science center were put on the ballot when the economy was hitting a rough patch. That’s one place where I’m willing to raise taxes if everything remains flat.
“Council shouldn’t just go throwing things on the ballot,” he added. “When voters see it on the ballot they see that as the city recommending it to them. If you know you can’t afford it, you shouldn’t put it on the ballot.”
As a fiscal conservative, Phillips is running against Perkins. As a communicator, he is running against Knight.
“Getting buy-in is going to require a lot of communication for the public to understand why we might have to do these things,” Phillips said. “It’s going to take a mayor and council communicating on what the issues are.
“Bill Knight talks about ‘we’re not having a secret meeting,’” Phillips continued. “They have secret meetings, but they don’t explain [their votes] to the public or to the council members on the other side. They’ve had a discussion outside of the meeting. You see the silence there, which is incredible. When I was on council we would explain our decisions on anything that was the least bit controversial, even a zoning decision.”
The conservative voting bloc that is currently in control of council voted to do away with small group meetings with council members. Phillips said former City Manager Ed Kitchen instituted the practice for legitimate reasons, but the candidate said he was always ambivalent about the meetings.
“Ed Kitchen used to have great frustration because the mayor and council wouldn’t give direction,” Phillips said. “He didn’t want to have it be that every time staff brought something before council in a [public] meeting it would get shot down.”
Phillips said city managers also used small group meetings to provide updates to lawsuits, which would have been a more appropriate topic for an officially advertised closed session. Former City Manager Mitchell Johnson also used small group meetings to inform council that he was exercising his authority to extend employment benefits to unmarried couples in domestic partnerships. Although the decision was not a secret, an update from the city manager in open session would have arguably demonstrated more transparency.
On the use of economic incentives to create jobs, Phillips said he would support major initiatives such as HondaJet and Federal Express that could be considered “game changers.” In fact, he did vote to extend sewer lines to Federal Express.
Other projects don’t merit incentives, he said. As an example, a local developer requested $300,000 in incentives in 2005 to bring a Wal-Mart Supercenter to northeast Greensboro. Phillips said that at the time Perkins warned that if the city didn’t grant the request it would lose the project. A majority of council, including Phillips, voted down the request, and Wal-Mart opened anyway.
Like almost every candidate who is not Bill Knight, Danny Thompson, Mary Rakestraw and Trudy Wade, Phillips argues that a key requirement for economic development is restoring decorum on the council so that local government makes a good impression on corporate leaders considering relocation or expansion in Greensboro.
“We need to have a civil and rational city council that is welcoming,” Phillips said. “Companies can see what is going on.”
One factor that might hurt Phillips with conservative voters is his support for former City Manager Mitchell Johnson’s handling of discrimination complaints by black police officers and Chief David Wray’s departure in 2006.
“First and foremost, I believe the city manager has the right to hire and fire his department heads without council’s involvement,” Phillips said. “I did criticize Mitch privately for his handling of the David Wray matter. I said, ‘You should have fired him six months ago when you believed that David Wray lied to you.’ I wouldn’t have locked him out of his office. In corporate America, they take your corporate ID and escort you out of the building, and say, ‘We will send you your stuff.’”
Near the end of our conversation, Phillips wanted to return to the subject of solid waste. Having served on the Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority, he believes he has some valuable insight into pursuing regional solutions to critical community needs.
“After serving 19 years on the water authority, I understand that you’ve got to respect the politics of the various governments involved,” he said.
Phillips said Councilman Danny Thompson’s interest in having Greensboro purchase an equity stake in a regional landfill under development in Randolph County is unrealistic.
“They’ve got enough issues reopening the landfill,” Phillips said. “They don’t need that thrown on top of it.”
Phillips said he has conferred with Darryl Frye, a member of the Randolph County Commission who also serves on the regional water authority board. Phillips favors having the city of Greensboro officially begin discussions with Randolph County about cooperation on solid waste. He said Greensboro will have to overcome distrust to become a partner in a solid waste authority with Randolph County.
“Everybody’s suspicious of Greensboro,” he said. “I don’t know who said this, but someone said, ‘Greensboro always tells us: ‘We’ll do this, but only if you do it on our terms.’
“You’ve got to determine [whether Greensboro can buy an equity stake in a landfill as opposed to being a paying customer] without pinning them down publicly,” Phillips continued. “If you get out ahead of them, they’re going to say no. It’s a lot of work. And maybe we can develop a regional solid waste authority eventually. This group we have now is so short-term thinking they don’t even understand about what it takes to put something like that together.”
EDITING NOTE: This post originally included a paragraph quoting the candidate on opponent Robbie Perkins' handling of a vote on a sustainability action plan. Phillips said this article misquoted him and that he was actually referencing a "downtown area plan." The point of the quoted statement was to comment on Perkins' alleged practice of changing positions during votes. The original point is probably lost, and I am removing the passage rather than determining whether a correction is warranted.