by Jordan Green
Becky Smothers and Judy Mendenhall, who have served on High Point City Council off and on since 1977, log their last meeting as Bill Bencini takes the oath as the city’s new mayor.
Mary Jarrell, a former High Point city councilwoman, state lawmaker and mother of Judge Tom Jarrell, sat in the second row of council chambers on Monday night.
“This is going to be a funny council without Becky Smothers and Judy Mendenhall,” she said. “They’ve been there so long.”
Jarrell was elected with Smothers and Mendenhall to city council in 1977. Jarrell was chosen as mayor pro tem — then a position reserved for the top vote-getter — at the time. Smothers and Mendenhall would both go on to serve as mayor, winning and losing elections over the next 30-plus years, ending with a final term in supporting roles on city council.
“Judy and I have seen so much growth and expansion,” Smothers said. “It’s something we’re very pleased to have been a part of.”
While Smothers and Mendenhall’s era has been marked by the decline of manufacturing in High Point, the city also witnessed an explosion of growth on the north side around the Piedmont Centre business park and the Palladium shopping center under their watch.
Smothers went on to say that having worked with five mayors and three city managers, “I figure that for every thousand people that we’ve added since I came on council I have gained one pound.”
Mendenhall, who has lived in High Point since 1960, has led the High Point Market Authority and West End Ministries in addition to serving on council.
“At my advanced age, I am looking forward to chilling a little bit,” she said. “I’m not sure my bridge partner even voted for me because I think she wanted me to be able to spend more time at the card table with her.”
Foster Douglas, who is retiring as representative of Ward 2 after six years, and Britt Moore, who lost his reelection bid in the at-large race, are also leaving the council.
Douglas joked with Councilman Jeff Golden, who was first elected in 2012, that he is now the council’s senior member. None of the nine members of council have served continuously for more than two years, although Mayor Bill Bencini and at-large Councilman Latimer Alexander have served on council previously. At-large Councilwoman Cynthia Davis, Ward 2 Councilman Chris Williams and Ward 3 Councilwoman Alyce Hill are serving their first terms.
“This is a very young council,” noted Golden, who will chair the community housing and neighborhood development committee.
Many of the departing members said press accounts of dysfunction over the past two years have been exaggerated, arguing that a review of votes would reveal that they were united on many issues. Smothers brushed against some of the tumult experienced by the council, which included a series of closed-session meetings to discuss a grievance filed by a department-level employee against former City Manager Strib Boynton, and a controversial vote by the white members of council calling on Bernita Sims, the city’s first black mayor, to resign. Boynton retired in June, and Sims resigned about two months later, before pleading guilty to defrauding a family member by writing a worthless check — a felony.
“There’s been so much said tonight that I totally agree with — particularly with regard to the competency of this council and some of the issues that we faced that were not easy,” Smothers said. “And some of those were internal, and leadership was at question at times. But I think overall when you look at our record, overall it’s one that we can be proud of.”
Jim Davis, who served as mayor from the time of Sims’ resignation until the new council was sworn in on Monday night, lauded Smothers for her “ability to connect with all members of the community.” Smothers received a standing ovation.
One member of the past council who did not attend either a reception earlier in the afternoon at High Point Theatre or the largely ceremonial meeting at the municipal building was Sims, who is under house arrest as part of her sentence of five months probation. Before recognizing her achievement as the first city’s first black mayor, Davis asked if there was anyone present to receive her commendation. When no one responded, Davis said, “I’ll accept it on her behalf.”
Before adjourning, the old council approved a contract with the new city manager, Greg Demko, who starts his new job next month, and approved funding to demolish the Meredith Street Apartments.
Aaron Clinard, a past chairman of the board of City Project, expressed optimism that the new council under Bencini’s leadership will move the city forward.
“We know a lot of the folks who won ran on the revitalization issue,” he said. “I hope that’s going to go a long way towards this council making some good decisions.”
Bencini greeted colleagues with brisk energy during the ceremonial activities, conferring one on one with members of the incoming council during the reception to honor the departing members. Later, after taking his seat on the dais, the new mayor thanked his fellow council members.
“I’m convinced of your understanding that the accomplishments of the individual members will be measured by our ability to work together,” he said.
The mayor’s committee appointments reflected a willingness to share power. He appointed Jim Davis, who was also elected by his peers as mayor pro tem, to chair the finance committee. Councilman Jason Ewing — like Davis, an anti-tax conservative — received the chairmanship of the new prosperity and livability committee. Councilman Jay Wagner received the nod to chair the comprehensive planning committee.
Meanwhile, in his seating assignments for the dais, the mayor flanked himself with Wagner and Hill, whose ideas about revitalization mostly closely reflect his own, while placing the three most conservative members — Ewing, Jim Davis and Cynthia Davis — to his far right, and the two black members of council — Golden and Williams — along with at-large Councilman Alexander on his left.
Cynthia Davis, the top vote-getter in the at-large race, expressed a willingness to buck consensus when necessary.
“I know there will be times that you don’t agree with my decisions,” she said, “but I want to thank you in advance for understanding that we will not always agree.”