Candidate profile: Bill Knight

In mid-September during one of his first candidate forums with mayoral incumbent Yvonne Johnson, then-candidate Bill Knight 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. We have one chief selected because of race. We had another interim chief — don’t know what his situ — We have 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.”

Oddly enough, the statement hardly came up again during the campaign.

The police chief at the time was Tim Bellamy, who is black. The former chief who had been “forced out on racial issues” was David Wray. As a citizen, Knight had called for the termination of Wray’s former boss, Mitchell Johnson, as a citizen. By the time Knight launched his mayoral candidacy, Mitchell Johnson was already history.

Mayor Knight denied making the statement earlier this year, when a former police captain spoke to council and quoted the mayor as saying, “Former chief Tim Bellamy got his jobs because he was black.”

“That is incorrect,” the mayor said repeatedly.

After serving his first term, Knight is seeking reelection in a crowded race with four challengers, including political rival and fellow council member Robbie Perkins. The Oct. 11 primary will narrow the field to two candidates. During his campaign so far, Knight has declined interview requests by YES! Weekly and the News & Record. He did not show up at a mayoral candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad, a group that is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against city council seeking to keep the White Street Landfill closed. He also skipped a candidate forum hosted by the Guilford County Unity Effort.

Some have questioned the mayor’s low-profile strategy, but Knight has been underestimated before.

Bill Burckley, a political consultant working on candidate’s campaign, told YES! Weekly on Election night in 2009 that the formula for Knight’s success was high turnout in predominantly white, newly annexed precincts in northwest Greensboro along with interest in the Natural Science Center bond, which was more likely to appeal to white voters. Those elements, combined with complacency in the black electorate spelled disaster for incumbent Yvonne Johnson.

The annexation of the Cardinal neighborhood near Piedmont Triad International Airport effectively tipped the city’s political balance. Knight won the 2009 election while carrying only two precincts in east Greensboro, relying on heavy turnout and strong margins of support in affluent neighborhoods such as Irving Park and in western ones such as the Cardinal, Starmount and Adams Farm.

Steve Bowden, co-chair of the Simkins PAC, said after the election that he regretted that the political action committee had not highlighted the possible reopening of the White Street Landfill to black voters in the run-up to polling.

“The main issue for our community is there’s going to be an effort to open a dump in our section of town,” Bowden accurately predicted. “These new people, I’m sure they wouldn’t want a dump where the Cardinal golf course is. That’s what the people of east Greensboro are facing. There’s going to be a big push to cut taxes. And [reopening] the landfill is an easy way to make up the revenue if you want to cut taxes.”

Considering that battle lines have long been drawn over the White Street Landfill and most voters appear to have made up their minds, there has been little effort by the two presumed frontrunners, Knight and Perkins, to use persuasion to peel off each other’s respective supporters. This election is all about turning out the base.

Conservatives for Guilford County, a group that formed since the last election, has members canvassing neighborhoods with door hangers that advertise their endorsements, with Knight at the top of the list. Landfill opponents lead by community activist Goldie Wells have been meeting every weekend to canvass neighborhoods in east Greensboro to get out the vote. While Wells’ group is not making endorsements, the demographics of their target audience are likely to favor Perkins, who has a long relationship with constituents in east Greensboro.

Knight’s first significant vote after being sworn in as mayor was to oppose the use of certificates of participation backed by hotel/motel taxes to finance the completion of the Greensboro Aquatic Center. The mayor came out on the losing end of a narrow vote, with Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan tipping the balance in favor of the project.

From the start, Knight’s leadership has drawn protest, especially from constituents in east Greensboro. First, it was the mayor’s decision to move the public comment period at council meetings from the beginning to the end of the meeting, relying on his prerogative as chair. Initially, the council voted the change down, but in May 2010, after a group of college students protested the city’s handling of allegations of corruption within the police department, Knight and other conservatives were able to assemble a 6-3 majority to close the deal.

In the first months of the new mayor’s term, Knight’s remarks about the police chief became an issue, and speakers at council meetings repeatedly called on him to apologize. He quietly refused. Bellamy retired as police chief, and in September a new chief, Ken Miller, was sworn in. Incidentally, Miller is white.

Like the public comment controversy, much of Knight’s first year seemed to be taken up with cosmetic and ceremonial affairs. He organized a ceremony to honor military veterans during a city council meeting, but found himself embarrassed when it turned out there were no African-American veterans present. He rectified the oversight at the next meeting. And, in June 2010, Knight again used the prerogative of the chair to replace the traditional moment of silence at the beginning of the meeting with an invocation.

In the past term, Knight has been part of unanimous votes to approve economic incentive grants to companies such as Samet Corp., Ziehl-Abegg and Honda Aircraft Co., along with a decision to give International Textile Group free methane gas valued at $1.8 million as an incentive to retain hundreds of jobs.

Knight’s aversion to taxation and regulation has moved him to vote in sync with the wishes of local landlords on at least two occasions. In September 2010, Knight voted with the majority to exempt properties north of Fisher Avenue from the Downtown Design Overlay, a new ordinance that would subject downtown development projects to an architectural review process. And this past June, Knight was part of a successful vote to reduce an added special tax on property owners in the College Hill historic district. Among those lobbying for the reduction was the wife of his political consultant, Bill Burckley. Officers of the neighborhood association later complained that the decision had been made without their input.

In the fall of 2009, most of the council members expressed some reservations about the guidelines of a $5 million energy efficiency grant received by the city from the federal government, but in November Knight was on the losing side of a vote to finally approve the program. Many of the grant’s supporters, including former Mayor Yvonne Johnson, had hoped the grant would help revitalize the deteriorating housing stock in east Greensboro.

Knight mentioned that he had grown up in east Greensboro in a family of modest means, and then explained his objections.

“I worry about our national debt,” he said. “At the local level we lose sight of the fact that we’re taking money down on an overdrawn credit card. I have concerns about that.”

In June of this year, after significant program revisions, Knight would join his colleagues in voting to allow the grant to move forward.

The mayor also voted in favor of an initiative championed by District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny — to institute a teen curfew after 11 p.m. in downtown Greensboro.

The council passed a budget in 2010 that slightly decreased the municipal property tax. Conservative members tried unsuccessfully to block a water-rate increase. But when the city received a favorable lawsuit settlement, Knight and others voted to rescind the increase in two separate motions, using the settlement proceeds to make up for the lost revenue.

Knight has actively lobbied the NC General Assembly to delay enforcement of new environmental regulations that would force the city and private developers to restrict nitrogen and phosphorous runoff that end up in the Haw River, and to change the city charter so that the city attorney would report directly to council.

In contrast, the council under Knight’s leadership remained silence on a law passed by the General Assembly that outlawed the city’s proactive housing inspection program. The Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition, whose members generously donate to city council candidates’ campaigns, has made no secret of its desire to dismantle the program, while the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress and the Greensboro Housing Coalition fought to defend it.

The mayor and other members of the conservative group hit a rough patch when public outcry forced them to reconsider a redistricting plan proposed by District 4 Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw. The plan angered voters by moving an active precinct that had not supported Rakestraw in the past election into District 1, creating an irregular map with districts that were barely contiguous. It also moved a significant number of voters among the two districts in east Greensboro, leading to suspicion that the intent of the plan was to create confusion at the polls.

Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan was the first to recognize the vote to approve the Rakestraw plan had been ill considered. The mayor quickly joined ranks with her, and the plan was discarded.

Despite some discussion about the landfill in the 2009 election, the council delayed action on the controversial decision through the end of 2010.

In January 2011, council voted to issue a new request for proposals for a private company to handle the city’s solid waste. With Vaughan and, later, Matheny, conflicted out, a pattern quickly emerged with Knight voting with a mini-majority of four out of seven members to reopen the White Street Landfill, joined by Rakestraw, Wade and at-large Councilman Danny Thompson. Knight’s political rival Perkins, along with members Dianne Bellamy-Small and Jim Kee, found themselves on the losing end of those votes.

In the late spring they ignored warnings from a lawyer representing residents who live near the landfill that they could not expand the landfill without taking proper steps outlined by state law. The courts agreed, and the conservative quartet regrouped, voting to initiate a new and rushed process to reopen a limited portion of the landfill. Vaughan’s recusal was eventually lifted because the company her husband provides legal services to had not been not selected by the city. Vaughan’s signal that she would vote against the landfill prompted vendor Gate City Waste Services to file a lawsuit against her. Once it became apparent that efforts to sideline Vaughan would fail, the company withdrew its bid to operate the landfill.

Knight and his conservative allies have taken criticism for not explaining their decision to reopen the White Street Landfill. But last week, addressing a friendly audience at Conservatives for Guilford County’s candidate forum, the mayor displayed a rare candor.

“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.”

Knight proposed that a study committee take up the issue in the next term, adding that the city can’t afford to continue its current arrangement of transporting garbage out of the county. He noted that the city has had to delay construction of projects such as the Lake Jeannette Branch Library. The library is located in an affluent, north-central section of the city where Knight drew strong support in his last election.

In keeping with, Knight’s fiscal conservatism and accounting background, he expressed a cautious outlook on public expenditures.

“While we hear about a lot of cities and counties, and certainly the national government that are either just bankrupt or in red ink or in dire straits — and while we are in maybe an enviable position, we need to take every possible precaution to protect and hedge against that proverbial rainy day,” he said. “And what has happened elsewhere, I sincerely believe, could happen here. And what can we do to prevent that? Well, we started in this current budget year. For years, the city of Greensboro’s budget has grown and grown and grown. There’s been a rubber-stamp mentality, in my opinion. And we did start to find that we could curtail expenditures and start finding some expenditure reductions.”

Knight articulated who he considers to be his primary constituency.

“I spend a lot of my time as mayor out in the business community,” he said. “I think that’s one of my roles: I should be. One of the things I wanted to do was bring a pro-business attitude to our city government when I got here. And I feel like we have done what I considered a lot of social engineering, and it was time to get down to the thing of business.”

Conscious that the time allotted for his remarks during the candidate forum was rapidly dwindling, Knight hastened to conclude.

“And so I’m spending time traveling to Washington, to Raleigh,” he said. “I want to help work with the legislators on regulations, taxes, a host of issues. I think we can work with [the] business community. That is how we’re going to get back to jobs. Those are things that I will continue to do. I’m a full-time mayor, and I spend a lot of time out in the business community.”

In response to a question about criticism that the council has not demonstrated transparency, Knight revealed whom he does not regard as legitimate constituencies.

“As far as I know, there’s no involvement of something I was concerned [about] in the past,” he said, “what I consider to be special interest groups or community organizer groups getting involved in what’s going on.”

Knight gave a somewhat rambling answer, referring to transparency as a “buzzword” and explaining how he views communication with the public.

“I remember in 2005, maybe before I was a candidate, that word started making the rounds,” Knight said. “It’s openness. I believe this council has been quite open. 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.

“We have long debates sometimes, but we discuss, we debate, yes, sometimes we argue,” he continued. “It’s interesting that sometimes we have a consent agenda for non-controversial items, which suggests there may be controversial items. And we certainly go through those. But we make the decisions, and we move on.”

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