Conservative incumbents Trudy Wade and Bill Knight made their first public appearances in a lively City Council election campaign before a friendly audience at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum during a forum hosted by Conservatives for Guilford County last night.
C4GC candidates forum, a set on Flickr.
The host organization asked candidates to address the White Street Landfill, along with the issues of fiscal responsibility and job creation, and the District 5 councilwoman took to the first issue in particular with zeal.
“The problem with the landfill is our trash is costing us millions of dollars,” she said. “There were conservative members of council that decided we needed to look at this issue for the people of Greensboro – all the people of Greensboro. Is there a way we could save money and with that money do things for economic development such as put in infrastructure, do things we really need in this city? Are we getting the best bang for our buck with paying all that money to transport our trash, which is our responsibility, not our responsibility to go stick it in somebody else’s backyard – our responsibility as citizens that we should take care of our own trash.
“So yes, it’s a hot item; it was emotional,” she continued. “But let’s think about it a minute: Four of us – actually five, but one conservative member could no longer vote on the matter and had to recuse himself – took on this challenge: Let’s talk about White Street. Let’s see if there’s something we can do.”
District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny had been recused because of a conflict of interest with Gate City Waste Services, a vendor that was pre-selected to operate the landfill before withdrawing its bid. Matheny has not indicated publicly which way he would have voted on the question of whether to reopen the landfill.
Wade went on to dispute the cost-savings estimated by city staff and an outside consultant for reopening the landfill. Wade contended reopening the landfill would save the city $8 million per year, as opposed to $3.1 million.
“We can play with numbers all we want, but the way you get [the low] number is you add the closure cost in over a period of seven years,” she said. Wade’s math assumes that the city will have to pay closure costs for the White Street Landfill whether it’s reopened or not, but the city has maintained permitting and operational capabilities at the landfill since it stopped accepting municipal solid waste in 2006 and staff has put forth no plans to decommission it.
“It took brave people to bring this issue up,” Wade said, drawing applause. “There’s been people on the council for years. You’ve heard some candidates tonight and city council representatives that said, ‘I’ve been on the council 12 years, 16 years.’ Well, we don’t have a plan for solid waste, and they’ve been there for that amount of time because they didn’t tackle the situation.”
Mayor Bill Knight appeared to be dispirited by a recent reversal that took place when the interim city attorney ruled that Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan could vote on the landfill, but made no apologies for his handling of the matter.
“We’re faced with trying to find a way to stop the hemorrhaging of millions of dollars each year; that was not the case just five years ago,” Knight said. “We did have a solution at hand, but it’s too late now to turn back the clock on that. I’ve seen nearby communities – Winston-Salem and Raleigh, for instance – with landfills very similar to ours that have gone forward to significant economic development without the problems that we have here or have had in Greensboro. Economically, we are behind on this issue.”
The mayor proposed a study committee to take up the issue in the next term.
The program included two follow-up questions for mayoral candidates. The group did not give the incumbent candidate a free pass, despite their shared conservative philosophy. The moderator asked Knight to address criticism that the council has not demonstrated transparency under his leadership.
“I believe this council has been quite open,” Knight said. “We have a number of discussions. We have long agendas. Everything is discussed openly in open council meeting. We do have closed sessions for certain sensitive matters, but we do not engage in what used to be called small-group meetings.”
Chris Phillips, a self-described conservative candidate who has worked with Conservatives for Guilford County in the past, backed away from a previous position of conditional support for reopening the landfill.
“To keep the peace in Greensboro I would say keep it closed for right now,” he said.
“Saving money, if the White Street Landfill is the best option, I’d say, ‘Let’s do that,’” the candidate added. “But what we need to do also is the city of Greensboro needs to prove to the people in the area that it is the best option – that there is no foul odor…. As an African American, I can say that I have struggled with asthma, I have struggled with bronchitis, so any children that live in that area, we need to make sure that they feel safe, that there are no health hazards.”
The moderator noted that Phillips has gone on record as saying that he’s a regular user of Greensboro mass transit. Contending that city buses are underutilized during non-peak hours, the moderator went on to ask the candidate what changes could be made to make the system more efficient.
“In riding the buses every day, as I do, I understand what Greensboro’s residents who ride the buses go through every day,” Phillips said. “I think that we need to make sure there’s a safety net in place for the transit system so the money is used for that purpose. Another solution, I would say, we could have for the low ridership and the cost of diesel fuel, let’s have fuel-efficient cars, or let’s have shuttle vans that can go to these areas and pick up people. One of the things that I face is that if I miss the bus sometimes I have to catch a cab. And catching a taxi has become more and more expensive. So we need to make sure that there’s an effective bus system in Greensboro to pick up the riders who need those bus routes.”
The 45-year-old candidate noted that he is not married and has no children, adding, “those are some desires that I do have one day.” He told the audience that he graduated from UNCG with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
“I thought that when I graduated the world was going to be my oyster, so to speak,” he said. “I thought: I’m smart, and I’m going to get a job, and I’m going to live happily ever after. And please don’t get me wrong: I thank God for HH Gregg, and I thank God for my job, but there are other gifts, other dreams that I would like to put in place, and I know a lot of other college students who feel the same way that I do.”
The forum presented a test for mayoral candidate Robbie Perkins, a longtime councilman who is favored to win by many political observers. Although he is a registered Republican, Perkins is distrusted by many conservatives because of his alignment with the council’s progressive faction.
Perkins looked extremely composed, betraying only the slightest hint of nervousness as he answered a question about his vote to close the landfill a decade previously.
“The solution to the issue that we looked at in 2003 was similar to what we looked at today,” he said. “Your worst-case scenario, as a public official, is that you have no solution for your garbage. The assumptions made that you could keep White Street open and expand it were problematic then, as they are today. We’ve all heard about the issues involved in section 4 and section 5 of White Street and how that’s going to require rezoning, that’s going to require additional permitting. Those issues were up in the air in 2003 as well. What we were looking at is retaining our unused capacity, using that as a way to negotiate against the haulers, for them to give us a fair price.”
The candidate also answered a question about public subsidies for the Greensboro Coliseum with ease.
“I look at the billion dollars of tourism business in Guilford County as a huge community asset,” he said. “And the centerpiece of that business is the Greensboro Coliseum. So the million and a half dollars that we are giving the coliseum out of the general fund each year is a small part of the many millions that we bring in through that facility to the benefit of all of our citizens. I contend that the tourism business, the hotel business, and the restaurant business would not be close to the same in our city without the coliseum driving that business.”
One of the questions posed to mayoral candidate Tom Phillips, a former councilman who is also a registered Republican, related to the candidate’s long experience as a director of the Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority, which is responsible for bringing the Randleman Reservoir online to supply the water needs of Greensboro and neighboring municipalities. The moderator asked Phillips if the projected needs for water were inflated and whether citizens could expect a rate cut as a result of the new supply.
Phillips responded that if the city’s projected water needs had been inflated, it was because of the decline of the textile industry – once a major user. If the new water supply lasted for more than 50 years, as projected, Phillips said he doesn’t consider that a problem. He offered no relief on rates.
“You have expenses, and you never know what environmental rules will come along to require us to spend money,” Phillips said. “I really don’t see rates going down from here.”
Bradford Cone, the only Democrat on the mayoral slate, put forward a flat recitation of positions antithetical to conservative agenda. He said the landfill issue should not have been brought up by council and is unnecessarily dividing the city. And he said the city should invest in infrastructure to create jobs, and spend money in the short term to achieve long-term savings.
“I would also reinstate the moment of silence,” he added, “as the prayer, for anyone who’s not Christian would feel they’re less welcome and less a part of the community.”
Mary Rakestraw, a member of the conservative faction who is seeking reelection to her seat as the District 4 representative, pushed back against the notion that the process was rigged to favor Gate City Waste Industries.
“Now, some people have said that the RFPs that were sent out were written specifically for one server,” Rakestraw said, adding that after staff developed the request for proposals, council members made only “four or five minor changes” before the document was posted.
Rakestraw noted that studies about health impact of the landfill have come back inconclusive, and remarked that the landfill was currently “a moot point.”
Only one of two challengers in the District 4 race, Tony Collins, showed up for the forum. Collins said there was a need for new blood, but did not take a stand on either side of the landfill debate.
The three candidates competing to represent District 2, where the landfill is located, waded into hostile territory.
Incumbent Jim Kee geared his remarks somewhat to a conservative perspective on cost savings.
“It’s a bad economic idea because you’re looking at a short-term gain of four and a half years, and once the landfill is filled the profits that we would have earned would have evaporated when we went back to the open market, which we would have to do,” Kee said.
Challenger C. Bradley Hunt II made no apologies for his stance against reopening the landfill.
“We have to come together to understand that the White Street Landfill should not be opened in Greensboro,” he said. “I feel that no amount of savings is worth the quality of life for the residents that live near the landfill. To me, that conversation should not have ever come up, and I will do everything that I can to keep the White Street Landfill closed.”
Dan Fischer challenged audience members to who employ people in Greensboro.
“We need to start paying a living wage to everybody who walks through our doors when we’re hiring,” he said.
Jorge Cornell, who is challenging Wade for the District 5 seat, cut a striking contrast amidst the nattily dressed and politically conservative crowd. Cornell’s introduction did not include any mention of his role as leader of the North Carolina Latin Kings, a group considered to be a street gang by the Greensboro Police Department and other law enforcement agencies. All the same, the candidate and audience appeared to be in separate psychic universes.
Cornell gamely pitched himself on a bootstrapping theme, noting that he plans to launch a temporary labor agency.
“I’m proud to say that our doors will be opened in January, and it’s a joint effort with the Beloved Community Center, which has built in a training center,” the candidate said. “Which is going to help a lot of brothers and sisters that are homeless, brothers and sisters that got felonies, those that are considered marginalized in our community. The reason why I think this is important is that these brothers and sisters need to know that they still are community and we need to let them know by giving them that second chance in life because everybody deserves a second chance in life.”
In his closing remarks, Cornell echoed Frederick Douglass, who was quoted in a mass e-mail sent out by Conservatives for Guilford County to publicize the event: “In a composite nation like ours, as before the law, there should be no rich, no poor, no high, no low, no white, no black, but common country, common citizenship, equal rights and a common destiny.”
Cornell said, “We need to get away from this two-class citizenship, okay? We really do. We’re all one people. And I think that’s really important, because the only way we’re going to make change in this community is if we come together as one. As long as we sit here on this side and we have people sit on this side, we’re never going to make change. It’s been like this for awhile. As long as we stay divided, they shall conquer. And when I say that, I’m talking about us conquering ourselves.”
At-large candidate Chris Lawyer, a self-described conservative offered some general comments about fiscal responsibility, but made no mention of the landfill.
Jean Austin Brown, another conservative in the at-large race, exhibited difficulty articulating a position on the landfill, making equivocating statements about public input process and the merits of recycling.
“Nobody has the answer to the landfill,” she said. “I don’t think so. I’ve listened to everything. I’ve read everything I can about the landfill. I don’t think anybody has the answer yet. But I’m open to suggestions. Even when I’m on city council I would not be against town-hall meetings if all possible participants were there to voice their concerns, whether it’s yes or no. But I’m not for listening to just a bunch of folks who are angry and who are not willing to listen and to try to do something about this.”
Austin said, “When you say recycling, it’s probably like putting a Bandaid on cancer.”
Then she added, “I would be all for more recycling.”
Moderators Algenon Cash and Kevin Daniels gave remarks about the connection between conservativism and civil rights, but the real more resonant statements about the setting came from candidates.
“Earlier this week… the letters ‘KKK’ were spray-painted on one of my yard signs,” said Mayor Bill Knight, who graduated from Greensboro High School in 1957, the year before it accepted its first black student. “And what I took this to mean was hate. I can’t interpret it any other way but hate. Being where we are here I find it rather meaningful where we are. And this center symbolizes injustice and struggle.”
Sal Leone, an at-large candidate who drew a boo from the audience when he mentioned he was a Yankees fan, brought an unpopular message on the landfill.
“The future of Greensboro is in the east; we have no place else to go,” he said. “We need economic development. Landfills do not bring a lot of jobs. We need to develop the east. It will bring economic development, jobs, corporations, which bring money, taxes, revenue. It’s what we need.”
Then he drew back to a historical period that Daniels had referenced as the dawn of American civil rights.
“With the city council divided as they are, Abraham Lincoln said it the best: ‘A house divided cannot stand,’” Leone said. “And we all know what happened in 1860. That’s what’s happening here now. We’re in a crisis. We’re in big trouble.”