Candidate profile: Zack Matheny

Zack Matheny wrapped up his endorsement meeting at YES! Weekly and cut short the chitchat in front of the office this morning.

“I got to go play golf with Jim Kee,” he said. “That’s how you build consensus, buddy.”

Matheny is seeking his third term on Greensboro City Council, and defending his seat against challenger Jay Ovittore.

Matheny takes pride in noting that he is almost always on the prevailing side of close votes. Council members at either end of the political spectrum often need to court him to cobble together the votes to get their goals accomplished.

In his first term, he cast one of the deciding votes to fire City Manager Mitchell Johnson.

“Ultimately, that was one of the biggest decisions the city has seen,” Matheny said during his endorsement interview.

“If you think about it, that shows you I can build consensus,” he said. “I don’t stake myself out too quick…. I’m methodical, I gather the facts and talk to a lot of people.”

The sitting councilman reeled off the names of three of his fellow district representatives on council: Kee in District 2, Trudy Wade in District 5 and Mary Rakestraw in District 4.

“I work well with Jim,” Matheny said. “Jim and I are doing some awesome cool stuff in District 2. I helped Trudy try to get some things done in that park on Hilltop Road. We’re going to give the skate park a home there. Mary, I’m helping her with these [AT&T] U-verse boxes. How would I build consensus on a new council? The same way.”

A registered Republican on a nonpartisan governing body, Matheny has alienated some conservatives, who fault him for his support of major economic development projects such as the Greensboro Aquatic Center. The councilman takes a practical approach. Earlier this month, he joined Kee during a visit by President Obama at GTCC.

“I’m not an Obama supporter, but when he comes to town I want to hear what he has to say,” Matheny said, adding that he would be willing to have a beer with the president.

In December 2009, Matheny voted along with Kee, at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins, District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small and Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan to support the use of hotel-motel funds to complete financing of the aquatic center, and months later voted with the same group to approve the sale of certificates of participation to complete the project.

On many other votes, he has sided with the controlling faction of conservatives. Matheny voted in May 2010 to move speakers from the floor to the end of the meeting. He voted in September 2010 to accede to the wishes of property owners north of Fisher Avenue by exempting their properties from the Downtown Design Overlay. He voted last November to reduce water rates by 3 percent and use the proceeds of a lawsuit settlement to make up for the loss of revenue.

In a rare instance of ending up on the losing side of a vote, Matheny voted against a motion to reduce a special service district tax rate for College Hill at the instigation of a group of landlords and homeowners when council approved the 2011-2012 budget in June. A month later, officers of the neighborhood association complained to council that they had not been consulted about the action.

During the budget vote, Matheny joined conservatives in holding the line against restoring funding to the Greensboro Partnership, which markets the city to outside companies considering relocation or investment in Greensboro. Later, in September, he championed a $20,000 request for city funding to support a National Public Relations Initiative, also funded by the partnership, to pay a local public relations firm to pitch stories about the city to national publications.

On the largest and most divisive issue that has been handled by the city council, efforts to reopen the White Street Landfill, Matheny has been recused because of a conflict of interest, with his employer being an investor with one of the companies vying for the city’s solid waste contract in redevelopment project near the Atlanta airport. Now that the solid waste company has withdrawn its proposal to operate the White Street Landfill, Matheny has become more voluble about his ideas for dealing with the city’s solid waste.

Matheny said he has a list of considerations relative to pursuing a regional solid waste solution, which hinges on Guilford County’s southern neighbor, Randolph County, going forward with plans to re-permit a landfill.

“We’ve got to be down in [Randolph County Commission Commissioner] Darrell Frye’s office every day,” he said. “We have to get that landfill in Randolph permitted as soon as possible. [NC Senate President Pro Tem] Phil Berger, if he doesn’t want the landfill in Rockingham County, he can help us with the permit in Randolph County. Recycling could build revenue for us. If we can free up the transfer station, we can expand that for recycling.

“At the White Street Landfill, you’ve got two cells that are capped,” Matheny continued. “We need to pop some solar panels on there to do waste to energy. We need to do something with the methane gas. We can have a mini campus at A&T as part of a Ph.D. program. I’ve talked to [Chancellor Harold] Martin about that. We’ve got to do some education, so the residents feel comfortable with it. We can alter the truck traffic going into the White Street Landfill.”

Matheny said before he was conflicted out on the issue, he listened to both citizens that wanted to reopen the landfill to save taxes and to community leaders opposed to reopening the landfill.

“I’m an emotional business guy,” he said. “Figure that one out.”

Until Nancy Vaughan’s conflict was lifted, the recusal of the two council members left a mini-majority of four conservative members advocating the reopening and three members opposing it. Matheny said he couldn’t say how he would have voted on reopening the landfill if he had been allowed to.

He added somewhat cryptically that he sent an e-mail to a citizen concerned about his employer’s business dealings with the solid waste vendor to the effect that she didn’t know what she was doing, and “if you conflict me, it gets worse.”

Matheny has taken heat for leading the charge to institute a downtown teen curfew. The night council voted to approve the curfew, throngs of business owners, downtown patrons and other citizens pleaded with council not to do it. More recently, challenger Jay Ovittore has made it a campaign issue and courted a group of business owners alienated from Matheny and Downtown Greensboro Inc.

Matheny said the curfew had been discussed among city leaders and business owners for years before council voted to put it into effect, that at least one bar owner had complained about teenagers blocking the entrance to his establishment, and that it was needed to prevent friction with teenagers clogging the sidewalks when older nightclub patrons spill out at closing time.

Matheny led a press conference to announce a raft of proposed downtown public safety ordinance changes, including the curfew, on Nov. 10, 2010. Less than two weeks earlier, a 22-year-old man had opened fire in a sensational shooting incident at the intersection of South Elm Street and February One Place after leaving a popular nightclub. Many critics, including Ovittore, said it was unfair to blame teenagers for a crime they did not commit.

“It did not happen because of the shooting at February One and Elm Street,” Matheny said, adding that the sequence of events was “bad timing.”

Unlike the teen curfew and an anti-loitering ordinance that was also passed last November, a much discussed nightclub ordinance has not come to fruition. Matheny said he is still working on a plan that could require nightclub owners to file security plans under an ordinance that would cover the entire city. He said he respects business owners that invest money in Greensboro, and wants to try to gain their buy-in.

During current term, the council also voted to appoint Matheny as liaison for redistricting. At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins objected to a district representative leading the process. Matheny, along with a majority of council, rejected District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small’s overture to work with him on the initiative.

Matheny hosted two community meetings. No maps had been drawn at the time, and the overwhelming consensus among citizens attending the meetings was that no changes should be made to the existing districts. That was the last anyone heard about the process until four days before a council meeting in April, in which a narrow 4-3 majority voted to approve a map submitted by District 4 Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw that angered citizens by jettisoning progressive voters out of her district and creating bizarre boundary lines, and shuffling several precincts between Kee and Bellamy-Small’s districts.

Matheny was out of town at the time of the vote. He said he had communicated to fellow council members that citizens preferred to have no changes to the district map. Vaughan said shortly after the vote that she assumed the Rakestraw plan had been based on input Matheny received from citizens. Responding to a public outcry, the council, led by Vaughan, voted to reconsider the plan and instead passed one that was less disruptive.

Matheny staked out a qualified position on taxes during a candidate forum hosted by the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress on Monday.

“I don’t know, quite honestly, what’s going to happen with taxes,” he said. “My goal would be to not increase taxes,” he said. “I’ve said that, and we’ve been able to accomplish that by not increasing and actually having a very small slight decrease for the city.”

Matheny noted that property in Guilford County is scheduled to be revalued next year. Historically, property values appreciate so that local governments are able to reduce the tax rate and maintain neutral revenue. If, as is predicted, overall property values turn out to have depreciated because of the housing and foreclosure crisis, local governments would have to choose between increasing the rate to maintain neutral revenue or cutting spending to compensate for reduced revenue at the current rate.

“We want to keep the tax bill flat,” Matheny said later, explaining his position.

Matheny wears his passions on his sleeve and has the ability to turn on a persuasive sales effort.

“From my perspective, I’m not done yet,” he said at the end of his endorsement interview. “I think that we do need to expand the water-sewer pump station out near Rock Creek where [the American Express data center] is going. When AmEx comes on line, that pump system’s going to be at maximum capacity. We’ve got to increase that, because what happens if we get the next American Express that needs water and sewer? We need to spend that money and we need to upgrade that. We need to look at partnering with somebody. I don’t care who that somebody is, whoever has the land so that we can have a ready-made site. If all these consultants from businesses are saying, ‘The way you get jobs is to have a flat surface ready to go,’ then the city of Greensboro should do it. If it’s [local developer] Roy Carroll — I don’t care who it is. Roy, fortunately or unfortunately for him, has a bunch of land. And he can’t do what he wanted to do, so maybe we can partner with him.

“The other thing I look at on infrastructure is downtown and making our downtown look prettier,” Matheny continued. “We’ve got to push some folks down there, and we’ve got to step it up a notch. I want to help [local developer John] Lomax. My opponent said he’s not for any tax incentives and would never incentivize real estate. And then after I was asked I said, ‘You know, we’ve got a deal potentially for Lomax Properties that would take the North State Chevrolet property, go vertical with some heads in beds that could be great for our tax base, great for the aesthetics of our downtown. It would be great for small businesses because you’ve got people downtown that will actually walk and shop and spend money downtown. You’ve got Deep Roots [Market]. My thing, I would incentivize how to make those deals happen, and if you can work conjunction with the Downtown Greenway, because that’s one of the main reasons they’re coming. And if it’s an incentive, we’ll help with some street lights and clean up the joint. Let’s think out of the box, man!

“Let’s clean up the sidewalks," Matheny concluded. "Let’s get the gum off the sidewalks. Let’s pressure-wash these things where the hot-dog vendors have put grease everywhere. Let’s clean ’em up and make it more aesthetically pleasing and do that in conjuction with getting more heads in beds. That’s great! The deal going down on Elm Street going across to the other side of Lee Street, that is major right there. That could be the slingshot that throws the rock. The greenway’s coming in on the backside.”

CORRECTION: This article erroneously stated that Matheny refrained from taking a pledge to not raise taxes. In fact, a video produced by Conservatives for Guilford County indicates that he did take the pledge.

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