Knight and Perkins' mayoral debate: style and content

The News & Record’s redoubtable Mark Binker caught the highlights of last night’s mayoral debate between incumbent Bill Knight and challenger Robbie Perkins in today’s newspaper. Others have offered impressions. I’ll throw mine in, and offer some excerpts of the debate on issues that may help voters make up their minds on the candidates.

What I took away from the two-hour exchange most notably was Knight’s rally. His reclusive performance in office may have set expectations low. Knight’s track record on the White Street Landfill probably rules out the possibility of him drawing many votes out of east Greensboro, so it made sense for him to fire up his base on the west side, even if it didn’t feel natural. (See Doug Clark.) Knight took shots at Perkins, who has not been shy about his opinion of the mayor over the past two years. The sitting mayor displayed a sense of humor, energy and relish for the job.

At two hours distributed between two candidates, the event was a bit exhausting, but the sponsors established an excellent format, with moderator Marsh Prause alternating between questions submitted on note card by members of the audience, and questions asked by a panel of journalists: News & Record reporter Amanda Lehmert, News 14 senior reporter Bob Costner and News & Record editorial editor Allen Johnson.

I particularly appreciated Lehmert and Johnson’s questions about the city council’s silence on legislation by the NC General Assembly that outlawed the city’s proactive rental housing inspection program, known as Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy, or RUCO. Twice, Johnson indicated that he was unsatisfied with the candidates’ responses, and Prause followed up with a question by a member of the Rental Unit Certificate of Occupation board that kept the candidates on the spot. The audience was rewarded with answers that were more revealing than statements made in the past by two candidates that have both seemed uncomfortable with the subject.

“The question is,” Johnson said, “why didn’t the council stand up for RUCO?”

Knight noted that the city council was asked to vote on a resolution opposing state legislation.

“I will say that we’ve got a good program in the city, we’ve got a good inspections program,” he said. “And it’s been proven that of the thousands of units that had been inspected that the violations were relatively small in terms of the total. And again, I would argue that the problems are a small number of owners. I don’t know that that question has ever been answered: How many owners are a problem? I look at the landlords — these are people who take a risk. They take a substantial risk. I did work for a lot of them when I was in business, and I know they take a substantial risk in operating those properties. And we’ve got to respect that. They’re business people. They’re the people who create jobs. I’m comfortable with the decision we made.”

Perkins responded, “It seems to me that this issue came up at a Tuesday night council meeting, and the legislature was going to address it on Wednesday morning. And we decided as a council we had factions one way or the other. And we determined it would be better to table it and move on as opposed to voting on something that would be rendered meaningless by ultimately what was going to happen the very next morning, with or without input. And that’s kind of how I read it. I’m not sure that we had enough support on council to vote to sustain that particular ordinance.”

Oddly, Perkins did not mention that he voted, along with Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan and District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small against a motion in June to table a resolution urging members of the General Assembly and Gov. Bev Perdue to oppose legislation that prohibit local governments from carrying out proactive rental inspections. Knight voted for the motion, which was made by District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade.

Prause followed up by asking, “Do you consider one in 10 housing units in the city being deemed unsafe to be acceptable?” The candidates’ answers revealed markedly different positions on the issue.

“I voted for RUCO to get it started,” Perkins said. “I saw the success of RUCO over time and served on the RUCO board and was supportive of continuing the concept. The question is, is one in 10 acceptable? It’s not acceptable. But we’ve got a state law in place that really guts the RUCO program. So the question is, where do you go from here? You narrow the geography of each inspector so they become much more familiar with the individual properties in the area and try to get at the problem properties sooner. Number two, you increase the fines, so whatever this small handful of private landlords is are hit pretty hard and that they understand that it is our community’s priority that we all have safe housing.”

Knight responded, “Ten percent is hard to address that. What does that 10 percent mean? I mean, are you talking about serious violations? Are you talking about a window cracked, a door pane cracked or a lock that doesn’t work? Or are you talking about serious problems of houses that are crumbling? You need to know more before you can get a good answer to that.”

Prause paraphrased a question from the audience about how the Downtown Greenway ranks in priority and what they might do to expedite its completion. Knight indicated the greenway might have to take a backseat to other needs.

“I think we’ve got to look at all of our — we’ve got a lot of priorities. We’ve got unfunded libraries. We’ve got unfunded police positions. We’re going to have to look at that. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully. When we go into the budget next year, it will be ranked, along with everything else we do. So I can’t answer where it ranks, but it will have to stand in line and we’ll have to look at it. We, the council, will have to make some tough decisions when we talk to the city manager.”

In contrast, Perkins highlighted the greenway as a key asset in a part of the city that is critically important to the economic health and cultural vitality of Greensboro.

“Downtown Greensboro is the heart and soul of our community," he said. "It’s the one place that all of us can come together and have a good time, and celebrate being in Greensboro, North Carolina. And if you want to look at one place that is really common to all of us, it’s the downtown Center City Park. And you can go there anytime and see people from all over the community having a good time in downtown Greensboro. We don’t have a river in downtown Greensboro. A lot of communities have built their downtowns around a river. And so the decision was made: Let’s have a greenway that would be unique to Greensboro. And that would link the various segments of our city together. We’re through Phase I, working on Phase II. We need to move forward on that. That 4.8-mile loop will truly link our downtown with the rest of our city. It gives our citizens an opportunity to exercise. Importantly, it gives our developers an opportunity to link to the greenway to provide an additional amenity to spur economic development. $7 million of the $23 million cost of the greenway is being funded by the private sector. The balance is a combination of transportation bonds and other city funding sources. We need to move it forward soon as possible because that will create economic development and jobs in center city.”

Perkins blamed the controversy over the White Street Landfill for distracting the council from creating jobs.

“It’s been kind of difficult to tackle jobs like we wanted to because we spent the last 22 months focusing on landfill and dividing the community," he said. "I think right now we’re obviously in the middle of one of the great economic depressions in the history of our country. And everybody in America is struggling to try to create jobs and opportunities for their citizens to try to earn a good living. What we have in Greensboro is a tremendous infrastructure. And we’ve put that together over a period of years. And that’s something that I’m very proud of. Our water and sewer system is in the best shape it’s ever been in. Our roads are in tremendous shape, and there are more big roads coming. And when you’ve got five interstate highways running through your region, you can work towards building the type of aerotropolis with logistics-oriented companies that we have the opportunity to build at the airport. And at the same time you can work with your colleges and universities toward the nanotechnology and engineering center that’s being developed on East Lee Street in Greensboro.”

“I would say probably in my two years as mayor, I probably have done more for business than my opponent’s done in 16 years on council," he said. First thing I did when I was elected was reach out to the mayors of Winston-Salem and High Point. We do get together to discuss common issues. I’ve connected with mayors around the state. I’ve made multiple trips to Washington. I’ve made multiple trips to Raleigh on behalf of our business interests. I’ve talked to a legislative committee about regulatory reform to help small business where they’re being burdened by burdensome regulations and unfair taxes. I promise to continue to do that. We’re in a very difficult economy here. There are good things going on, but we’ve got a long way to go. There’s no short solution. It’s hard work. I’m dedicated to it. I also spend a lot of time out in the business community. It is a great dividend being out in our corporate community, and I do that well, and we have had some good things happen as a result of that.”

The two candidates responded to a question about conflict and dysfunction in city government. Knight called out Perkins and his ally, District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, without mentioning either by name.

“It takes the cooperation of all nine council members to have that orderly meeting," Knight said. "And when I have council members sitting down at the end of the row — my opponent and his colleague next — texting, talking, exhorting the audience to not cooperate, not participate in the meeting, and not be quiet, it makes it difficult, frankly. I’ll be very frank about that.”

Perkins pointed to process as the source of dissension.

“It seems like to me that it’s the mayor’s responsibility to communicate with all the council members, not just the ones that the mayor agrees with," he said. "And I think the failure of this council to function as we should is the failure of us to communicate consistently on the issues. Take, for example, this landfill issue. When you cannot, as a city council member, even have a discussion about a relatively recent development in Randolph County, not even have that discussion, and not even have our professional staff evaluate that option, nor will the city council allow for our own people to put in a bid to compare the public sector versus the private sector on solid waste disposal, it’s very hard to keep a citizenry that feels they’re being imposed on checked at council meetings. So I think the basic function of the mayor is to make sure that everybody gets heard, everybody has a fair shake, and that we at least attempt to hear everyone’s perspective.”

Prause asked each candidate to address perceived shortcomings.

“Some people say you want to be mayor just to help your real estate interests," he told Perkins, who is president of a local commercial real estate company.

“I certainly hope we have the opportunity to see some economic development in this community because if I’m catering to the people in the development business I’m not catering well enough because we’ve been slow the last four years," Perkins retorted. "So we really need to have a balance in this community. One of the things that makes Greensboro a tremendous place to live is the quality of life and the quality of developments that we have across our city. And so proper planning for those developments is very important. And we need to work together to do that. And it can’t be one side of Greensboro or another. It can’t be one industry or another. We have to balance: Put the whole mix together, challenge our city council to come up with a shared vision and then make it happen.”

Prause noted that Knight has been criticized for rarely visiting east Greensboro. He asked, “Will you represent all people, not just one side of town?”

“I try to be responsive to all citizens," Knight said. "As I said earlier, I’m accessible, I have visitors, my door is open. Citizens can come to see me. I have about 200 invitations per month that I’m going to. As far as being in east Greensboro, I have been to events there. I will continue to go, as I go to other parts of the city. Many times it’s easier if people do want to come to the mayor’s office. We can discuss issues. We can discuss problems. We have, obviously, mail, telephone. I get a lot of telephone calls, as all council members do. And I’m confident that I’m doing well in that regard.”

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