The appointment of Goldie Wells to fill Councilman Jamal Fox’s unexpired term as representative of District 2 provided a finale for a marathon session on Tuesday.
Wells is a longtime community leader in northeast Greensboro who served on council from 2005 through 2009. Fox, who has held the seat since 2013, announced earlier in the day that he will take a new job as property and business development manager working with the parks and recreation department in Portland, Ore. on Aug. 1.
“I’m seeking the position because I care about District 2 and the citizens that live there,” Wells said. “I served on city council from 2005 to 2009, but my service to the community has never ended.”
Wells cited her leadership in getting the White Street Landfill closed prior to her service on council, and then preventing it from reopening after she left council in 2009. Later, she played an instrumental role in founding the Renaissance Community Co-op, which opened last year.
Council members unanimously supported Wells’ appointment, and no other nominations were made, although three others put their names forward as candidates.
Four candidates have filed in District 2, which comes up for election along with the other eight seats on city council. Candidates who prevail in the November election will fill a four-year term. The District 2 race has attracted four candidates so far, including Jim Kee, who served two terms between Wells and Fox; community organizer CJ Brinson; mental health counselor Tim Vincent; and real estate agent Felicia Angus. Brinson and Vincent put their names forward to fill Fox’s unexpired term, as did Mebane Ham, who said she does not plan to run in the election. Wells did not say during her remarks on Tuesday whether she plans to run for the seat. Filing for the election closes on Friday.
During a portion of the meeting set aside for speakers from the floor, Kee expressed support for Wells’ bid to represent the district through December, when the new council is sworn in. Mayor Nancy Vaughan said later that she placed Kee’s name on a list of people to speak later in the meeting before the agenda item to appoint Fox’s replacement. At the end of the stack for speakers from the floor, which is limited to 10 speakers for a period of 30 minutes, Vaughan said the courier informed her that she had missed Kee. “We did have one more speaker,” Vaughan said from the dais. “Mr. Kee, I assumed you were here on Item No. 68 [appointment of Fox’s replacement], but you would like to be a speaker from the floor? Welcome back.” Kee proceeded to express support for Wells’ appointment.
Brinson interpreted Kee’s inclusion in speakers from the floor as an exercise of preference by the mayor considering that five of his supporters who signed up to speak did not have the same opportunity. Outside in the lobby afterwards he said, “It’s censorship in Greensboro. Fascism at work.”
Vaughan said later that she regretted that Brinson felt slighted, and had intended that all speakers addressing the appointment speak at the end of the meeting. Brinson and his supporters did not stick around for the appointment.
Fox holds the distinction of being the youngest person elected to Greensboro City Council after serving as president of the Guilford County Young Democrats. He said during a break that he’s only temporarily putting his political career on hold, and envisions returning to North Carolina with his wife in a couple years to pursue political service after gaining government experience in Portland.
“The power’s with the people; that’s what makes true democracy,” Fox said during a tearful address from the dais before embracing his colleagues and taking a seat in the gallery. “That’s something I’m going to take with me on my 3,000-mile journey to Portland.”
The warm collegiality surrounding Wells’ appointment and Fox’s resignation followed a testy debate over a contract to administer medical and pharmacy benefits to city employees. Staff recommended that the city switch providers from United Healthcare, a company with 3,500 employees in Greensboro, to Cigna. Richard Jones, a consultant with Marsh and McLennan, told council that the differential in cost savings Cigna could provide to the city and its employees comes to about $650,000 per year, compared to United Healthcare. City Attorney Tom Carruthers advised council that state law does not allow the city to give preference to a local vendor in a competitive bid for services.
Executives from both companies made final pitches to council, with United Healthcare mobilizing about 20 employees wearing matching blue T-shirts to fill seats in the gallery during the vote.
In 2016, the council approved a one-year extension of United Healthcare’s contract, and asked staff to prepare a new request for proposals after bids that year similarly indicated that Cigna could deliver the service at a lower cost to the city and employees.
Councilman Justin Outling, who represents District 3, moved to reject the new request for proposals and deny the award to Cigna.
Councilman Mike Barber, an at-large representative, said he didn’t like what he saw in the request for proposals and didn’t like what he heard from Cigna’s representative.
“The very first speaker for Cigna — it was almost adversarial,” Barber said. “That’s not a very good start.
“I saw one set of numbers based on reality, and one set of numbers based on estimates,” he added.
Fox and District 1 Councilwoman Sharon Hightower argued for awarding the contract to Cigna.
“We voted to increase pay for our employees,” Fox said. “The one issue these employees have is how much they’re paying on the plans. Why can’t we talk about saving them money?”
Hightower questioned her colleagues’ motives for blocking the contract.
“Is this about the campaign?” she asked. “If you want a campaign check — contribution — just say it…. This is kind of disturbing to me.”
Outling’s motion to reject the request for proposals passed on a 6-3 vote, with Fox and Hightower, along with at-large Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson, on the losing end.
The vote means that United Healthcare will retain the contract for now, and City Manager Jim Westmoreland will launch a new bidding process.
The council also approved a controversial annexation and rezoning request allowing developer Ken Miller to build a mixed-use development at the intersection of Lake Brandt Road and Trosper Road, across from Jesse Wharton Elementary. Dozens of neighboring residents wearing matching fluorescent yellow shirts turned out to express opposition to the project. Council previously turned down a request from the developer for a project that would be entirely commercial. Under the new proposal, attorney Marc Isaacson said a residential development would wrap around a commercial section that might potentially include a coffee shop and medical offices. The plan wouldn’t rule out a restaurant serving alcohol — a prospect that many residents find distasteful.
Hightower and at-large Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter cast the only two votes in opposition to the project.
“There will be more cars,” said Barber, one of the supporters. “There will be more people because Greensboro will continue to grow. The Urban Loop is coming right through this area. That’s going to bring more development. This allows us to grow the tax base so that we can maintain the same tax rate.”
During a work session before the meeting, council voted 8 to 1, with Fox dissenting, to indefinitely suspend the police community review board, while moving forward with two cases that have already been filed.
The decision was made after council heard a presentation from David Sevier, a member of the human relations commission who chairs the Greensboro Ad Hoc PCRB Assessment Committee. Council members embraced the committee’s recommendation to create a Criminal Justice Advisory Committee to analyze policing trends and issue quarterly reports, but they questioned why they should retain the police community review committee, which reviews complaints against police officers. Sevier reported there is wide dissatisfaction with the review committee, from complainants to police officers and even council members.
“I would hesitate to append a rotten process to a process with great potential,” Outling said.
Sevier responded that it’s still important to have a committee in place to review individual complaints, although he acknowledged that the process is significantly constrained by restrictions on access to police personnel records. He said complainants view the review board as a “meaningless black hole.”
The council asked Sevier’s committee to come back with recommendations to revamp the police community review board. Among other changes sought by the human relations commission, members would like the ability to interview complainants in closed session.
“The last case was the first to have a complainant speak to us,” said Tom Phillips, a member of the police community review board. “We didn’t know what to do. They spoke to us, but we couldn’t ask questions. We would like to see that changed.”