December 17, 2009
|Fluff Talk Dominates City Council Retreat|
In a major upset, Bill Knight was elected mayor on Nov. 3. Although it is a nonpartisan race, Knight is the first registered Republican to be elected mayor in Greensboro.
Knight learned at the retreat – Friday, Dec. 11 from 6 to 9 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 12 from 9 a.m. to 3:40 p.m. at the Center for Creative Leadership – that the rules are different for a mayor who is registered Republican.
For instance, the mayor has in the past been able to appoint councilmembers to boards and commissions at will. However, Knight was told at the retreat by Councilmembers Robbie Perkins and Zack Matheny that if they didn't get the appointments they wanted, they had five votes to overrule Knight's appointments.
Knight had not even announced what his appointments were, but Perkins and Matheny had heard that they didn't get what they wanted.
In the end Councilmember Trudy Wade said that she didn't want any appointments, which evidently satisfied Perkins and Matheny. Matheny said all he wanted was to continue on the Coliseum commission.
There was also talk at the retreat of overturning Knight's seating arrangement – the establishment of which is another prerogative of the mayor – but at the Tuesday, Dec. 15 council meeting, everyone sat in the seats they were assigned and nobody complained in public.
At the retreat, Councilmember Jim Kee said that he wanted to sit next to Perkins, and Matheny said he didn't like where he was seated. Matheny is next to Councilmember Dianne Bellamy-Small.
The retreat was hour after hour of fluff, and two hours of bedlam. The whole thing was not well thought out from the start.
Why a mayor who was elected as a fiscal conservative would want to preside over a retreat where the facilitator was paid $2,000 plus expenses, and the food cost was about $400, for a total of over $2,500 for a nine-hour meeting is hard to figure. The cost would have been higher but someone paid the $250 room rental to the Center for Creative Leadership. Several councilmembers suggested that the next time they rent a room, they rent one with heat. The room was cold Friday night and not a lot warmer on Saturday.
What is also hard to fathom is how the retreat was handled. When the councilmembers found out that this was supposed to be a touchy-feely retreat rather than a retreat where they would discuss issues like the upcoming budget – which is going to be a bear – the councilmembers revolted and demanded that the agenda be changed.
The facilitator from the Institute of Government in Chapel Hill, Carl Stenberg, said if the council wanted the agenda changed he would change it so that they spent more time on issues and less time on process. He said it, but he didn't change much of it. The council talked around some issues, like the structure of the city staff and the process for hiring a new police chief, which not surprisingly is pretty much the same process as has been used for filling high profile positions in the past: lots of input, advertising, a national search, all of that stuff.
City Manager Rashad Young did say that he expected Police Chief Tim Bellamy to retire in July, which at least gives a time frame. Young also said he planned to hold a quarterly briefing on the budget and planned to go through a different budget process than the city had used.
Other than breaking into groups of three to discuss the best thing about Greensboro and other subjects like that, the topic that dominated the meeting both Friday night and Saturday afternoon was reinstituting small group meetings, pushed by Perkins and Bellamy-Small. It isn't the first time. Perkins made a motion to get small group meetings reinstated Feb. 19, 2008, and it was voted down.
The staff has since interpreted that vote to mean that no two councilmembers could be in a room with the city manager or senior staff or some such silliness. When Perkins made the motion to reinstate small group meetings everyone knew what he was talking about. The staff greatly expanded the definition, for their own purposes.
Despite what is generally thought, there was never any official action to ban small group meetings. It was evidently done by a consensus of council.
Under former City Manager Mitch Johnson, councilmembers were brought in for briefings three or four at a time. According to Bellamy-Small, three times would be scheduled and councilmembers could pick one as long as five councilmembers didn't pick the same time. If five picked the same time then the Open Meetings Law would apply and the meeting would have to be open to the public.
The supposed purpose of the small group meetings was to convey information to councilmembers about upcoming issues. The real purpose was to strong-arm councilmembers to vote for whatever the city manager favored. It was very effective and resulted in official public meetings where all the votes were 9 to 0 with virtually no discussion. The small group meetings were in fact a clever way to circumvent the Open Meetings Law and do all of the city business behind closed doors.
Perkins and Bellamy-Small argued and argued and argued for the reinstatement of these meetings at the retreat.
On Saturday, Matheny said he was fine with reinstating small group meetings as long as they were open to the public and the media was notified and invited. This, of course, defeats the whole reason for having small group meetings, which is to do the city's business behind closed doors, and Perkins found a lot of problems with Matheny's suggestion.
To Perkins' credit, on Friday night he said that the council needed to go ahead and get its priorities on the table and "quit wasting a lot of time on fuzzy-wuzzy issues."
But the retreat was largely spent on fuzzy-wuzzy issues. The council never did hold hands in a circle and sing the Barney song, but they might as well have.
This is a council that has enormous issues among its members and is going to be facing huge issues. It met for nine precious hours and didn't accomplish a lot other than to establish that there is going to be a constant battle between Perkins and Knight on this council
The facilitator was not only paid $2,000, he was put up in a hotel room for a night. The Institute of Government is in Chapel Hill, which, according to Google, is a 56-minute drive. The facilitator couldn't leave at 9 p.m., drive home and drive back by 9 a.m. the next morning? People make that commute every day. It's not much money, but the principle is important. The mayor and some members of this council ran on the platform of being fiscally conservative. It's going to be difficult to get city employees to cut back on unnecessary expenses when the council spends money so freely on itself.
At one point the facilitator shockingly took sides in the small group debate with Perkins and Bellamy-Small, in favor of the small groups. Usually facilitators don't take sides, but Stenberg was arguing in favor of giving small groups a try when it was obvious that the majority of the council did not want to go back to doing the city's business behind closed doors.
The entire retreat might have been billed as the Stenberg and Bellamy-Small show. Stenberg did speak more than Bellamy-Small, but Bellamy-Small definitely came in second. The rule enforced by Stenberg was that no one else could comment or speak as long as Bellamy-Small could still think of something else to say. She talked and talked. When other people spoke Stenberg would try at times try to move the meeting along, but Bellamy-Small could talk about anything for as long as she wanted, and she did.
Not only did Bellamy-Small talk continuously, she verbally attacked Councilmembers Mary Rakestraw and Wade when they weren't in the room. Some facilitators would have put a stop to personal attacks against councilmembers who were not there to defend themselves, but Stenberg did not.
The former City Council was routinely criticized for not having a retreat for two years, and this council had one before its first regular meeting. However, if the council just wants to spend a weekend together they should go fishing or play golf or something, but not get caught in touchy-feely meetings that are designed not to accomplish anything because nothing of substance can be discussed.
Councilmember Nancy Vaughan said after the meeting that all she asked was that time be set aside during the retreat to discuss the rules for council meetings that Young has proposed. She was repeatedly promised that, but even though the meeting ran 40 minutes longer than scheduled it was never discussed.