December 29, 2011For Guilford County government, 2011 was a landmark year: It was the year in which a successful move by the state's Republican legislators – with Democrats hollering and screaming the whole time – saw the adoption of legislation that will reduce the largest Board of Commissioners in the state from 11 commissioners to nine by the end of 2012.
The change goes much deeper than the loss of two Guilford County commissioner seats. A new district map that was adopted along with the new board structure is almost certain to shift the Guilford County Board of Commissioners from being a board dominated by a longstanding Democratic majority to one controlled by Republicans, once the new structure is in effect for the 2012 election.
The last time there was a change in the size of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners was two decades ago, in 1992, after legislation in 1991 increased the size of the board from seven to 11 commissioners. That same legislation created three majority- minority districts and established district lines that virtually assured a Democratic majority on the Board of Commissioners and was passed by a Democratic state legislature. And, with the exception of two years in the mid '90s, Democrats have held a majority on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners for the past 19 years.
So it was no surprise that, after District 62 state Rep. John Blust and President Pro Tem of the state Senate Phil Berger joined forces to shrink the board to nine commissioners – as well as to adopt new district lines that favor the Republicans – the county's Democrats were absolutely up in arms.
This summer, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Skip Alston, a Democrat, said he would fight the change "until hell freezes over," and he added that, even after hell froze over, he would "strap on ice skates and continue fighting."
However, the Democrats' best shot at getting the Republican district plan overturned failed to transpire. Many Democrats were hoping the plan would be rejected by the US Department of Justice, which had to give its approval before the new board became a reality. Since that department is now under the Obama administration, there was some expectation among area Democrats that the new board structure would be thrown out as racially unjust.
However, justice officials said they had no problem with the new structure or with the new lines, and, so far at least, no legal challenges have been mounted. Even if opponents of the new board file lawsuits in an attempt to stop the changes, some say those court challenges would merely end up being rejected by the Republican-dominated NC Supreme Court.
Prominent Guilford County Democrats have been crying foul ever since the plan was adopted, but many Republicans say the word they should be crying is "karma" – because there was no similar outcry of injustice by Democrats in the early '90s when the Democrats conducted a stealth move to increase the size of the board as well as establish a Democratic political advantage in Guilford County government.
If the new board structure stands, as expected, then for two years starting in December 2012, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners will have no at-large commissioners. The terms of the current two at-large representatives – Commissioners John Parks and Paul Gibson – will end in 2012. In 2014, one of those at-large seats will be restored to the board and the board will consist of eight commissioners elected from districts and one elected at large.
So, starting in December 2012, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners will look very different – and that's especially true since two long-time county commissioners, Mike Winstead and Billy Yow, have stated they won't run again in 2012.
Another big story in Guilford County government in 2011 was the astonishing ability of Guilford County Manager Brenda Jones Fox to hold on to her job despite managing to follow the impressive slate of scandals in 2010 with a whole slew of new ones in 2011.
Some of the new scandals looked remarkably like the scandals Fox had brought Guilford County in 2010. For instance, this year, like last year, Fox created a new county department and a new director's position, and she quietly advertised to fill that job without telling the board. This time around, it was the county's court services and child support services that Fox merged into one department without consulting the board.
Fox brought plenty of other scandals to county government in 2011. For instance, this year there was the well-publicized "Rentgate" scandal in which Fox took money out of the Sheriff's Department budget – money meant to pay the rent for the department's satellite office in Summerfield – without bothering to tell either Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes or the commissioners. Barnes only learned of the move when he got a past due notice on the rent from the property owner.
In March 2011, The Rhinoceros Times revealed findings that, in late 2007 and early 2008, when Fox was the county's finance director, she conducted a bid process for a $5.1 million loan to buy the BB&T building in downtown Greensboro across the street from the World Headquarters of The Rhinoceros Times and she allowed Wachovia to change its bid after the deadline had passed and the process was supposedly closed.
That move cost Guilford County about $180,000 and, despite the fact that Fox had no believable defense for the move, Fox kept her job this year, largely due to her continued strong support from Alston.
Fox, in 2011, also didn't inform the commissioners of serious concerns that county law enforcement and emergency workers had about a county fuel contract. Many commissioner said later that, if they had been given all of the information regarding the companies bidding for the contract, they almost certainly would have chosen trusted local Berico Oil as the county's fuel provider rather than an out-of-state fuel broker, James River Solutions – a company that doesn't own any fuel or any fuel trucks.
The broker beat out Berico's bid by about $900 on a half-million dollar fuel contract. One of the vital things the commissioners didn't hear about until later was the fact that James River, by its own admission, couldn't guarantee fuel delivery to the county in an emergency in a timely manner.
Fox began the year by sending a memo to the Board of Commissioners meant to defend her actions in 2010. That memo was widely considered to be totally unconvincing, and, in early January 2011, it looked inevitable that the Board of Commissioners would either fire Fox or force her out. However, a majority of commissioners demonstrated over the course of 2011 that they are firmly behind Fox and wouldn't vote her out in a million years no matter what she does.
Only three commissioners – Bill Bencini, Gibson and Yow – have spoken openly about their displeasure with Fox and have at times called for her to step down or for the board to fire her. By the end of 2011, it became clear that all new scandals and improprieties from Fox would be accepted by the majority of the board with an apathetic shrug of their shoulders. Yow said this year at one point that Alston had most of the commissioners on the board "mesmerized."
At the board's Sept. 15 meeting, Yow went on a long tirade about the fact that, everywhere he went in Guilford County, or even in the surrounding counties, just about everyone he spoke to asked him when the commissioners were going to get rid of Fox.
Yow, in his lengthy televised tirade, ran down the long list of controversial and secretive actions that Fox had taken as county manager, and he said repeatedly that the vast majority of citizens wanted her gone.
After Yow finished, Alston told Fox what a great job she was doing, and Alston also told her not to listen to detractors like Yow, who, Alston said, were making baseless claims simply because they didn't like her.
Not all the scandals that plagued Guilford County in 2011 were connected specifically to Fox. In January, for instance, The Rhinoceros Times broke the story that Guilford County had paid about $40,000 to a web design company, XMG Online, for a new county website – even though XMG never delivered a usable product to the county.
When the XMG scandal became big news early this year, Yow and others accused Alston of wrongdoing because Alston was the only commissioner who was at the meeting in the fall of 2010 at which county officials decided XMG would get paid to "walk away" from the agreement for the company to create a new county website.
After the accusations began to fly, Alston said the reason he was at the meeting was because he had been asked to be there by the owner of XMG – who, Alston said, he didn't know at all.
During the heat of the XMG scandal, Alston came out with an allegation of his own against Yow – the commissioner who was screaming the loudest about Alston and the XMG fiasco.
Alston discovered that, about a year earlier, Yow had adopted three stray cows from the Guilford County Animal Shelter. Alston claimed Yow was benefiting financially by taking large animals from the shelter and Alston alerted the media, sent a memo to fellow commissioners and called for an investigation of Yow by Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne.
Yow blasted Alston in the press. Yow said he had been helping the Animal Shelter house large animals for years, and he added that he had never made a profit doing it. In fact, Yow said, it had cost him a lot of money over the years.
Yow added that the only reason Alston was trying to generate a scandal based on the practice was because Alston was implicated in the XMG scandal, and Alston, Yow said, was trying to redirect some of the press coverage from that scandal to the supposed Cowgate scandal. The Rhinoceros Times' article in which Yow angrily responded to Alston's allegations ran with the very clever headline, "Billy Yow Has A Cow Over Skip's Bull."
In 2011, county salaries stayed flat for the third year in a row, but property taxes in the county shot up 4.5 cents for every $100 of property value when the county's $580 million budget was adopted in early June.
It was a good budget for the sheriff. While other county departments got cuts, Barnes got 89 new guard positions for his new county jail in downtown Greensboro, which seemed to be moving along nicely for the most part in 2011.
This year, Barnes also expanded his revenue stream from the Guilford County Prison Farm near Gibsonville, by doing everything from selling $200,000 worth of dirt from the farm to a road construction company, to hawking $6.50 jars of Jailhouse Jelly – made from grapes grown by inmates at the Prison Farm – at commissioners meetings.
Unfortunately, none of that is expected to make much of a dent in the county's giant budget shortfalls, which in 2011, as in the previous two years, saw weak revenues from sales taxes and cuts in state contributions to many programs.
One theme of the year was the ongoing battle between the Democrats on the board and the Conservatives for Guilford County (C4gc), the local Tea Party group. Before the 2011-2012 budget was adopted in early June, the group rented out the commissioners' meeting room in the Old Guilford County Court House and held a "summit" on the county's budget, and C4gc members proposed cuts for the 2011-2012 budget.
Alston didn't come to the meeting and the next day he blasted the group in the press.
This fall, before the November elections, C4gc member Jodi Riddleberger showed a video as a speaker from the floor that endorsed by name conservative candidates running for the Greensboro City Council. After that, the majority of Democrats on the board quickly voted to ban all videos from speakers from the floor at commissioners meetings.
Toward the end of 2011, there were two deaths of frequent speakers from the board. Both Marie B. Stanley and E.H. Hennis passed away. Stanley and Hennis were well known by the commissioners from their participation at meetings as speakers from the floor.
After Stanley's husband died, she came to meetings for years to push the county to buy a mobile medical unit – something that the county eventually did, at a cost of about $130,000, largely due to the efforts of former Guilford County Commissioner Bob Landreth.
After the mobile medical unit was approved, Stanley continued to come to meeting after meeting to thank the commissioners for the medical van. Over the last two years, Stanley ceased coming as her health deteriorated and, in October 2011, the news of Stanley's death saddened commissioners and county staff who remembered her colorful comments.
Speaking of colorful comments, Hennis often came to meetings to express his displeasure over events that happened years ago that caused him to have a continuing feud with the county.
Earlier this month, Alston was elected chairman of the board for a fourth straight year in row – his fifth stint as chairman overall. For most of 2011, Alston seemed to have little interest in taking the board's center seat for a fourth straight year.
However, after the Department of Justice ruled that it would allow the board's new nine-member structure and district maps to stand, Alston decided he wanted to be chairman again.
Alston said he wanted the job because he felt he has been an effective leader. But the fact that the board is likely to have a Republican majority starting next year – and therefore will have Republican rather than Democratic chairmen – might have played a role in Alston's decision to seek the chairmanship again this year. This may turn out to be Alston's last realistic chance to serve in that capacity.
The commissioner who was left out in the cold this year was Commissioner Kirk Perkins, who had been actively seeking the chairman's seat all year long. In the end, Perkins stepped aside and didn't challenge Alston over the seat – a challenge Alston no doubt would have won.
Perkins did seek, and win, the vice chairman's seat. At the first meeting in December, Perkins replaced Republican Commissioner Linda Shaw as vice chairman, ending three straight years of bipartisan leadership of the board.
The commissioners first meeting of 2012 will be on Tuesday, Jan. 10, when the board meets in the Blue Room of the Old Guilford County Court House for their annual retreat.