April 23, 2009
|Council Ends Up Back At The Starting Line|
It wasn't so much what the Greensboro City Council did at its regular meeting on Tuesday night, April 21, in the council chambers, but what the council didn't do that was noteworthy.
The council didn't give away valuable land in a public park, even though the Parks & Recreation Department staff recommended in favor of it.
The council didn't pass a ban on door-to-door sales after 7 p.m. or sundown, whichever came first, which Councilmember Zack Matheny insisted the city needed for the safety of its citizens.
The council also didn't take any action concerning the employee survey for which the council just received the results.
But the most consistent themes of the evening were that the council didn't get along and didn't get anything done.
In other words, it was a typical meeting for the City Council during the reign of Mayor Yvonne Johnson. The council met for six hours and really didn't do much of anything, except talk about issues, including a lot of talk about themselves.
Two items on the agenda were to basically give two property owners, whose property abuts Hood Park, over 460 square feet of the park each for their exclusive use. It is a truly bizarre situation, and one that proclaims that the city staff has no leadership. The council cannot be blamed because most of the councilmembers found out about the situation when they read their agenda packets. But parks and recreation can be blamed because it is that department's job to manage the parks in Greensboro, and at least in this case the department's method of management was to recommend the city give park land away because adjacent property owners wanted it.
No one argued that the adjacent property owners had any right to the land, or that there was a dispute about where the property lines were. In both cases adjacent property owners simply took park land for their own private use and the response of the Parks & Recreation Department was to try its best to give them the land.
Hood Park is a park of less than two acres that runs between Sunset Drive and Hood Place in Old Irving Park. Right across the street is the Greensboro Country Club golf course. It is some of the most expensive land in Guilford County.
Councilmember Trudy Wade may have made the most telling statement of the night when she said, "If it is not their property, they are on it illegally. I believe that if this were in District 5 you wouldn't be doing this. I think we would be moving that wall." She added, "It is not their property. It belongs to all the taxpayers."
Mike Simpson, of the Parks & Recreation Department, who made the recommendation, didn't cite any precedent for giving away park land to citizens who wanted it. But he seemed to have based the decision on the fact that Hood Park is a passive park and doesn't have any playground equipment, athletic fields or courts.
There are two separate instances of encroachment in this tiny park, which has a sidewalk, trees and one bench.
One involves Chris and Lisa Carlson at 721 Hood Place. They put in a new driveway and widened the paved area behind their house for a basketball court, and they widened the court into the park, paving an encroachment that is over 15 feet deep at its widest point and includes a stone retaining wall. The encroachment is a little over 49 feet long and tapers from 15 feet down to less than a foot at the far corner from the house. There is no doubt that the pavement is in the park. The excuse the Carlsons gave the city is that they didn't know where the property line was. But the basketball court would still be large as far as backyard courts go without the 464 square-foot encroachment on to city land, and it isn't just a few feet over the property line, but over 15 feet into the publicly owned park land.
The other encroachment is by Jonathan and Allison Bell at 1603 Carlisle Road, and involves a playhouse and a 4-foot fence. The council was given no drawing of this encroachment, but the playhouse is, according to the city, on park land, as is the fence. This seems like a case where under normal circumstances the property owner would be told to move their playhouse and fence back to the property line, but instead parks and recreation recommended just giving the Bells exclusive use of park land.
This is in Councilmember Zack Matheny's district, but he had to recuse himself because Jonathan Bell is his boss.
After a confusing discussion about the two issues, Councilmember Mike Barber made a motion to table both items and it passed on a voice vote.
Councilmember Goldie Wells held up the discussion for a while because she was convinced that the basketball court in the Carlsons' backyard would be open to the public if the city allowed the encroachment. When she was told by Simpson that was not the case, she changed from being in favor of the encroachment to being opposed.
Councilmember Sandra Anderson Groat asked what the property was worth, and was informed that the city staff had no idea what the property they were recommending be given away was worth.
The staff recommendation is misleading at best. The recommendation states that the Carlsons went to the expense of piping a stream in their backyard, which is true, but piping the stream that ran across their backyard benefited them and made their property much more desirable, but it did not improve the park property where the stream is still a stream. The report also mentions fixing a sidewalk that runs along Hood Place and has nothing to do with the encroachment, but you would never know it wasn't related from reading the report.
Former Parks & Recreation Department Director Bonnie Kuester was involved in making the recommendation to give the land away, and former Assistant City Attorney Jerry Kontos did the legal work to allow giving the land away. It is worth noting that both were heading out the door when they worked on this project.
Councilmember Robbie Perkins said the city is going to have a lot of stream buffers on private property that were going to be hard enough to enforce without having the precedent of the city allowing a citizen to build a structure in a city park. He asked how the city was going to tell someone they couldn't put a shed in their own yard on a city easement if the City Council allowed someone to actually build part of a basketball court in a city park.
Councilmember Mary Rakestraw asked if it was normal for the city to give away land without any monetary consideration and was told it was not normal. Simpson said, "Normally we wouldn't allow it, nor would we encourage it."
After the meeting, Barber said his motion to table was in hopes of reaching an agreement, but he said there was no way the city could give public land away.
Groat asked why this didn't go to the Board of Adjustment and didn't get an answer, but the real question is why this came before the council. For years people have lived in Latham Park, but the Parks & Recreation Department has never tried to give them their campsites. City staff deals with people converting city property to their own use not infrequently, but rarely is the recommendation from staff to give away public land.
Councilmember Dianne Bellamy-Small noted that the city forces people to remove basketball goals set up in city right-of-ways and this was in a park not just a right-of-way.
Another item of note where the council did nothing is about peddlers, panhandlers and door-to-door salesmen. Matheny is convinced that Greensboro will be a safer place if door-to-door salesman have to stop selling at 7 p.m. or sunset, whichever comes first.
Once again Wells had to change her position when the ordinance was explained to her. She thought the compromise was 7 p.m. or sunset, whichever was later, which would have allowed sales until 9 p.m. or so in the summer. Matheny said he has gotten a host of calls about door-to-door salespeople, solicitors and beggars. But both Perkins and Groat, who are at-large councilmembers, said they have not received a single call about this problem.
Matheny's theory is interesting. He says that changing the time limit on door-to-door sales from the current ordinance, which is that it must stop at dark, to 7 p.m., is going to keep people from being robbed in parking garages and get the panhandlers off the streets.
This is the second time he has brought up the issue. The first time he wanted the deadline to be 6 p.m. That ordinance at the last council meeting was tabled and this time it lost on a 7-to-2 vote, with Wade voting with Matheny in favor of the motion.
Matheny said he was going to bring it up again. Tuesday night, Chris Rees of Dixie Meat Co. spoke against the ordinance, saying that he was a legitimate businessman who made his money in the summer selling meat door to door, and that you couldn't sell anything before 5:30 p.m. because nobody was home, and you couldn't sell after dark because people were not going to trust any stranger who came to their door after dark. Reese said Matheny's ordinance would put him and other small businessmen out of business because the 90 minutes from 5:30 to 7 p.m. just wasn't enough time, particularly because in the winter some days there is no time to sell.
The council got in a huge disagreement about the results of the employee survey, which were revealed Tuesday night by Sara Williams of the Employment Security Commission of North Carolina. A free employee survey was first proposed by Wade, and then was morphed by the Human Resources Department into a $92,000 "cultural audit." Nobody seemed to know what a cultural audit was, and then it was brought back down to earth for the free audit done by the Employment Security Commission.
This employee survey has been controversial from the beginning. Last fall, it was going to be a tool to evaluate former City Manager Mitch Johnson, but as with so many projects, this one took on a life of its own and now it seems the council has forgotten the purpose of the survey and the circumstances under which it was administered. The online survey was conducted from Feb. 16 through March 6. Mitch Johnson was removed from office on Tuesday, March 3, but the votes were in place to remove him on Feb. 27. So while employees were taking the survey, their boss was being removed from office by the City Council. The City Council got the lowest scores from city employees, with a score of 26.9 percent positive responses to questions concerning the City Council.
But when you look at comments made about the City Council, many are critical of the council for doing what the council is supposed to do. One comment is, "The City Council should stop fighting with each other so much and start working together as a team."
The City Council is not a team; it is an elected body. Fighting may not be necessary, but councilmembers are supposed to defend their views and do what they think is best for their constituents, not what other councilmembers want them to do, or even what city employees want them to do.
Barber and Mayor Johnson got in a heated discussion about this very topic. Barber said it was his right and his duty to express his opinion. Eventually Mayor Johnson agreed with him, but not before trying to shut him up.
Perkins said, "This council is not disciplined enough to go ahead and schedule the meetings we have to have." He noted that the council kept canceling briefing sessions that it needed to have in order to know what was going on in the city and make rational decisions.
It is past the middle of April, and this council has not yet had a discussion on the budget. Usually the council has a lengthy discussion on the budget in January, and then has several more discussions at briefings or specially called meetings. This is an extremely tough budget year, and this council is not going to have much input into its own budget.
The problem with the council can be seen in the way the meetings are now run. The meeting started at 5:30 p.m., but the council didn't get started on the action items on the agenda until after 7:11 p.m. Up until that point the council had given out awards and heard from speakers from the floor. Even when the council got into the agenda, the first item was a request from Nettie Coad, from the Olde Asheboro neighborhood, for more money. It was a presentation that, in the past, would have been given three minutes during speakers from the floor, not unlimited time during the meeting.
The council did annex the Millstream area, which had come up last year and been granted a delay for a year, and then passed on a 5-to-4 vote at the last council meeting. Because it only passed by 5 to 4, the annexation had to be passed a second time, and it was.
There was a lot of drama behind the scenes during a part of the meeting that is usually boring. During the time for appointments to boards and commissions, Bellamy-Small nominated Lee McAllister to the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority and the motion passed on a voice vote. McAllister will replace Nancy Vaughan, whose term is up and who has announced her intention to run for an at-large seat on the City Council.
Wade had expressed concern that Greensboro was not going to have a woman on the authority and had planned to nominate Gwen Alston, the wife of Guilford County Board of Commissioners Chairman Skip Alston. However, it was a long meeting and Wade evidently missed what Bellamy-Small said. Wade did state her intention to nominate Gwen Alston and Johnson agreed to have a recorded vote on McAllister's appointment. On the recorded vote McAllister won 6 to 3 with Wade, Rakestraw and Johnson voting against his appointment. Wells and Bellamy-Small who are always talking about the need for more diversity and the need for the city to employ more blacks voted in favor of appointing white man over a black woman, so they are evidently not really as interested in diversity as they claim and maybe they would be in favor of saving millions of dollars by eliminating the Minority and Women's Business Enterprise Department.
In the good news category, a contract for a pipeline to transfer water from Randleman Lake to the people of Greensboro, which was originally estimated to cost $17 million, and, closer to the bid date, was estimated at $12 million, came in at $7 million. Water Resources Director Allan Williams told the City Council that the city had never had so many contractors bid on a project.
Following that statement, Perkins spent some time talking about how now was the time to build the new swimming facility at the Coliseum. Barber said that in this climate the city might be able to build a $20 million facility for the $12 million in bonds that the city has for the project.
The City Council had scheduled a closed session reportedly to discuss some of the lawsuits that the city is facing, including those from police officers and former police officers. But because the meeting didn't end until 11:30 p.m., the closed session was not held.