Newly seated Winston-Salem City Council reshuffles committees

Vivian Burke was sworn in to her 13th term on Winston-Salem council
Mayor Allen Joines and eight members of Winston-Salem City Council — all but one of them veterans of the body — pledged new investment in infrastructure and a war on poverty as they took their seats for a new term after being sworn in.

And while the roster of the body reflected little turnover, a reshuffle of committee leadership as two council veterans stepped aside, signaled a fresh start for the council.

As chair of the finance committee, Councilwoman Wanda Merschel has been recognized by her colleagues for helping the city maintain the lowest tax and fee structure of any major city in the state through a succession of difficult budget years. Her retirement from council created a vacancy filled by Jeff MacIntosh, as the new representative of the Northwest Ward, but also created a leadership vacuum on the finance committee.

The council voted unanimously on the motion of Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke to appoint Robert Clark, a four-term Republican who represents the West Ward to chair the finance committee. The surprise was that the slate moved by Burke promoted Councilman James Taylor Jr. from vice-chair to chair of the public safety committee.

Robert Clark is the new chair of the finance committee.
"I have been the public safety chairman for 36 years," Burke said after the vote. The councilwoman, who has represented the Northeast Ward since 1977, added that she talked with her son, Judge Todd Burke, her campaign secretary, Naomi Jones, and her campaign manager, Wayne Patterson.

"I said, 'God has blessed me, and I'm not going to serve as chairman anymore,'" Burke recalled. "The mayor had made that recommendation that I would. And I called him and I said, 'I have something to say.' I said, 'I want to move away from being chairman of public safety.'... I feel that [Taylor] would do a good job. He is committed. I want you to know that it was a choice, and I think the city will be in good hands with James Taylor as our chairman."

Councilman Dan Besse will replace Clark as chair of the public works committee, and Councilwoman Molly Leight will replace Besse as chair of the general government committee. Besse said he requested the switch.

"I've had a particularly strong interest especially in our transportation infrastructure services ever since I've been on the council and wanted the opportunity to press forward in development on that end," said Besse, who is beginning his fourth term. "I thought I would have the strongest chance to do that as chairman of the public works committee."

James Taylor Jr. will chair the public safety committee.
Several council members are interested in putting a new bond issue before voters for a referendum next year. That includes Besse, who said he will push for funding for a streetcar system and intersection improvements, along with new sidewalks and bike lanes.

Clark said the city's roads and parks have been neglected because of budget constraints over recent years.

"I will be suggesting to this council that it is now time to seriously look at a general-obligation bond on a referendum," he said. "It has been 13-plus years since we've put a bond before voters and I think those resources are needed to get this city back to where it needs to be."

Joines said the new council needs to quickly put together a strategic plan and a capital improvement plan to prepare for a bond issue next year. The mayor, who has served three terms, has acknowledged the widening wealth gap in Winston-Salem over the course of his reelection campaign, and quickly pivoted to a gesture of economic reconciliation during his remarks.

"If Winston-Salem itself is to reach its full potential, we have to find a way to address the unacceptable levels of poverty in our city," the mayor said. "The poverty levels for families in our community were 21 percent last year, and 17 percent of our households qualify for food stamps. Certainly, educational attainment is a critical factor. For instance, the poverty rate for individuals with a bachelor's degree is only 5 percent, compared to 34 percent for individuals who do not finish high school. So dealing with this issue is certainly the right thing to do morally. But it's also the right thing to do because it affects us all and eventually becomes a burden on the taxpayer."

Dan Besse takes the helm of the public works committee.
Joines said that Councilman Derwin Montgomery, who represents the East Ward, and NC Sen. Earline Parmon have talked to him about the issue.

"So I propose that we create a poverty, work and opportunity task force to review the issues surrounding poverty, inventory the various programs in place now and to identify new programs that should be developed to address this issue," Joines said.

Leight, who has represented the South Ward since 2005, sketched similar contours in her remarks.

"I would like to see our city and council members not only continue our economic growth — the muscle of our city — but also put that growth to use for those amongst us who need the help the most: the hungry, the homeless, the have-nots," she said. "I pledge to direct my attention to the heart of our city, towards those poor and without homes and food, especially those children who go to school hungry. I also pledge to direct my attention towards quality-of-life issues — shall we call it the soul of our city. Those issues have had to take a back seat during the past few years. A quality city funds parks, libraries, museums, which in fact, in turn, become economic drivers for the city."

Councilman Denise D. Adams predicted "difficult decisions about taxes" to pay for raises for police officers and firefighters and to finance new infrastructure and quality-of-life initiatives. And consistent
Molly Leight is the new chair of general government.
with her reelection campaign, Adams pledged to widen the city's redevelopment focus from downtown to outlying residential areas.

"Everybody wants to come home to a nice community block where there might be a coffee shop, or there might be some small businesses, or there might be some areas where children and families can come to do recreational things — nice sidewalks, more bike trails and greenways, better paving," she said.

While many council members reflected on two or three terms, Burke's comments summed up a record 12 terms in office.

Burke said that with the help of Assistant City Manager Greg Turner she calculated that she has spent 3,320 hours in official meetings to handle council business, not even counting community meetings.

"Tell me that I'm not committed and dedicated," Burke said. "There's no debate."

The Northeast Ward councilwoman talked about how during her tenure on council she has watched an area of Hanes Mill Road transition from a tree canopy to retail development.

"And some of you might not like to hear about Wal-Mart," Burke said. "But I tell you — I told the constituents I represented: 'I cannot say no; this time I'm going to say yes.' And we put Wal-Mart there. It created so many job opportunities. It made for people to have better homes. So we are interested in economic development."

MacIntosh, as the sole new member of the council, credited his colleagues with helping the city retain its AAA bond rating and steering Winston-Salem through the recession.

Jeff MacIntosh is the newest member of council.
"I think we're on the verge of being able to do some really great things," he said.

Merschel did not attend her final council meeting because of an unexplained medical issue, but City Manager Lee Garrity read from a written statement received by e-mail. Merschel thanked staff, fellow council members, her husband, family and friends and her successor, but singled out fellow council member Burke for praise.

"A special thanks and congratulations to my longtime friend, Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, on her historic election," Merschel said. "Her dedication to our community is legendary."

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