Candidate profile: Jay Ovittore

District 3 challenger Jay Ovittore (left) speaks at a candidate forum with incumbent Zack Matheny.

Nov. 8, 2011 is a big day for two reasons.

It marks the release of the “Call of Duty” war-fighter simulation game. As an employee of GameStop, Jay Ovittore would ordinarily have a tough time getting permission to take off on such a major sales day. But his boss made an exception: Ovittore will be working the polls and watching the returns in hopes that Greensboro voters will elect him to the next representative of District 3 on city council that day. He’ll have help from the AFL-CIO to set out campaign signs at polling places the night before.

In a field of competition typically crowded with financial advisors, real estate professionals and business owners, Ovittore’s livelihood as a retail employee gives him an every-man touch. But his union backing represents another facet of his candidacy: As a former human relations commissioner, onetime consumer lobbyist and volunteer coordinator for the city’s unsuccessful Google Fiber initiative, Ovittore has gradually built a reputation as a hardworking and thoughtful civic leader.

As a challenger to two-term incumbent Zack Matheny, Ovittore undoubtedly remains the underdog. While Matheny has alienated some constituencies from time to time, he has also proven to be a high-profile and vocal leader, particularly on the issue of public safety and promotion of the Natural Science Center. And Ovittore has a lot of ground to make up, if election returns two years are predictive: Ovittore was eliminated from a three-way race in the 2009 primary, winning only 12.7 percent of the vote. Matheny went on to handily defeat the successful challenger in the general election.

Ovittore has tapped into an anti-incumbency mood among the electorate by emphatically declaring his opposition to efforts to reopen the White Street Landfill. Matheny was sidelined on the issue because of a conflict of interest. And Ovittore has declared that his first motion, if elected, would be to move speakers from the floor back to the beginning of the meeting. Matheny voted in May 2010 with the majority to move speakers from the floor from the beginning to the end of the meeting.

The challenger has also exploited a sense of alienation felt by some downtown business people towards the incumbent, particularly on an initiative to implement a teenage curfew at the instigation of Downtown Greensboro Inc., a group representing a number of powerful developers and downtown property owners.

Earlier this year a new group called Downtown Alliance GSO emerged to fill a perceived void. Ovittore’s recent meeting with the group appears to have created a good impression.

“Ovittore seems to be in step with many of the Downtown Alliance GSO goals, citing a need to move incentives from developers to entrepreneurs and business owners, opposition to the teenage curfew and improving the public image of Greensboro politics as some of his objectives,” wrote David McLean, owner of King’s English public relations firm, in a recent blog post.

“I look at downtown as the Montagues and the Capulets,” Ovittore said during an interview yesterday at Caribou Coffee in the Friendly Shopping Center. “One side is artistic and the other is development oriented. We’ve got to get them both to the table.”

Ovittore said he has talked to some Greensboro police officers about an under-18 downtown curfew. The candidate said the curfew was unnecessary, and unfairly punished teenagers for a public safety problem caused mainly by adults.

“Some of these teens are now 18 and able to vote,” Ovittore said, “and I hope they’ll remember who voted to implement the curfew.”

Ovittore adds to the distinguishing factors between himself and the incumbent: “The fact that I’m not owned and operated by local real estate developers. I find it unethical that real estate developers donate to some candidates and then come before those same candidates and ask for rezoning favors. It seems like our local politics has become pay to play.”

Ovittore announced early in the campaign that he would not respond to questionnaires by the Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition or the Greensboro Landlords Association, and that he would not seek the landlords associations’ endorsement. Matheny, who is employed by a real estate and investment management company, received 41 percent of his 2009 campaign funds from contributors involved in the real estate industry, according to an analysis conducted by YES! Weekly.

Ovittore noted that a number of sitting council members have accepted campaign contributions from Roy Carroll, a developer who owns a company that has been developing a proposal to seek incentives from the city to create a shovel-ready site for economic development.

“It’s a microcosm of the problem we have in DC,” Ovittore said. “Loudon County, Virginia, which includes the city of Alexandria, has passed an ordinance that does not allow real estate developers to make campaign contributions. Some would argue it’s a free-speech issue. They don’t have the right to buy influence on the city council and get their way every time.”

Ovittore also challenged Matheny on his commitment to transparency.

“Every time I’ve heard him speak in this campaign, he says he’s open and transparent,” Ovittore said. “You yourself reported that he tried to hide redistricting maps. If he tried to hide that, what else is he hiding?”

On some issues, the challenger said he agrees with the man who currently holds the District 3 seat. Matheny has broken ranks with fellow conservatives by backing major bond projects such as the Greensboro Aquatic Center and, more significantly for District 3, the SciQuarium at the Natural Science Center. Matheny persuaded his fellow council members to place a $20 million bond to expand the science center on the 2009 general election ballot.

Ovittore said he commends Matheny for his leadership on the Natural Science Center, characterizing the facility as “extremely important.” Ovittore said he counts himself as a supporter of the science center in particular and of science in general.

As a lobbyist, Ovittore said he brought it to City Manager Rashad Young’s attention that the Republican-controlled General Assembly was considering legislation that would make it more difficult for municipalities to establish their own broadband services. The Greensboro City Council passed a resolution opposing the legislation, but the General Assembly ultimately enacted it. Ovittore credits Matheny with casting the deciding vote to put the city on the record as opposed to the bill.

Ovittore indicated that his stance on the landfill has been neither a help nor a hindrance with voters in the district.

“There’s a lot of people still opposed to it being opened up,” the candidate said. “There are some who feel differently. I put it to them as: What if it was in your backyard?”

He added that he hears a lot of complaints about the city spending $8 million a year – the purported cost of keeping the landfill closed.

“If you think that’s expensive, then open it up and see if a cancer cluster develops,” Ovittore said. “See how much it costs to settle a lawsuit.”

The candidate said he is interested in having the city own and operate a landfill as opposed to being a customer to another local government, and also interested in pursuing waste-to-energy technology. He added that he would consider taking a portfolio approach so that the city diverted a portion of its waste stream from a landfill to experiment with waste-to-energy techniques.

“If it costs our council a little more to pursue an avenue that would be advantageous in the future, I’m willing to consider that,” Ovittore said. “A basic business principle is you have to spend money to make money.”

Ovittore shares with at-large candidate Wayne Abraham, with whom he formerly served on the human relations commission, a critique of the city’s sprawling growth pattern.

“I understand the principle that if a city doesn’t grow, it dies,” Ovittore said. “I want to see the city grow up instead of growing out. I strongly prefer infill over sprawl.”

The candidate expressed skepticism about whether annexation ultimately pays for itself by generating additional tax revenues in excess of the cost of extending services. And contrary to the assurance of a number of candidates, Ovittore said he believes the city council can help create jobs. Ovittore’s proposal for doing that involves shifting incentive money from industrial development projects on the outskirts of the city to redevelopment projects at the city’s core.

“There’s a difference between giving Roy Carroll an abatement and we sprawl out, and giving a building owner an abatement to beautify a business downtown,” Ovittore said.

As a member of the human relations commission, Ovittore chaired the housing committee, and served on the RUCO task force to monitor negotiations between landlords and housing advocates over the city’s proactive rental inspection program.

A tenant himself, Ovittore faults the current council for remaining publicly silent when the General Assembly passed legislation to outlaw the RUCO program this summer.

“Sitting on the housing committee as chair and seeing that the real estate industry wanted to get rid of a program that upgraded housing and brought everything up to a minimum safety standard, the message was that the real estate industry doesn’t care about their housing,” Ovittore said. “When the General Assembly passed that bill, Mecklenburg County and Wake County got themselves exempted. You didn’t hear anything from our city council. I relate it to the human aspect. I want it to be safe.”

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