by Eric Ginsburg
Despite there being nine seats on Greensboro City Council, only two contests drew enough candidates to force a primary election this October. The most competitive of those two, where three first-time candidates will do battle, is District 3.
The voters of District 3 have an outsized influence in Greensboro’s primary election this fall. The district, a wedge beginning in downtown and widening as it moves north, is loosely framed by Battleground Avenue to the west and Church Street to the east. And it hasn’t seen a competitive race since Zack Matheny locked down the district in 2007.
Matheny resigned — an unusual occurrence in city politics — shortly before this year’s election season began to take the helm of the embattled Downtown Greensboro Inc. Council appointed Justin Outling, a lawyer with Brooks Pierce and the district’s first black representative, to fill the remainder of his term.
Now Outling is beginning his first election season, and without Matheny as a heavyweight holding down the office, two more first-time candidates jumped in the ring. The top two contenders in the Oct. 6 primary will move on to the Nov. 3 general election, so the biggest question for now at least is which one of these three will be knocked out.
But with the same voting rights as anyone else on council, including the mayor, the outcome of the race has implications for the entire city. Likewise, the victor will ultimately represent all Greensboro residents.
Triad City Beat will continually cover this race as it develops, but here is an introduction to each of the District 3 candidates who want to represent you.
In alphabetical order by last name:
All three candidates emphasized economic development first, a common darling of city council contenders and one that is particularly unsurprising in District 3; the district covers a portion of downtown, which is experiencing a development boom, and former councilman Matheny championed the cause and headed council’s now-defunct economic development committee.
Kurt Collins, who like Justin Outling moved to Greensboro in 2012, first started actively engaging with city politics thanks to a byproduct of downtown’s growing pains: the controversial noise ordinance. Collins moved out of the center city, in part because of excessive noise.
“It hit home for me because I experienced noise issues when I lived downtown,” he said. “I started paying more attention.”
Similar downtown issues are part of what pushed him to run for city council, as well as the window created by Matheny’s departure. But at the time of the noise ordinance, Collins chose to pursue civic engagement through other platforms.
He joined SynerG, a young professionals organization that is part of the economic development group Action Greensboro, where he now serves on the leadership committee with Outling.
With the help of Matheny, Collins was appointed to the city’s human relations commission, where challenger Michael Picarelli also serves. Collins is part of the commission’s complaint review committee, which oversees residents’ complaints about police conduct.
Collins said public safety is also a major concern, referring to downtown specifically, striking a tone similar to his predecessor who repeatedly pushed for a teen curfew in the center city. People need to feel safe coming downtown to patronize businesses and to live, Collins said, adding that the city could do a better job listening to residents’ public safety concerns but that he supports the police chief’s neighborhood-oriented policing approach.
Collins, who described himself as a fiscal conservative and “an everyday middle-class guy,” aligned himself with Matheny’s relatively conservative legacy and allegiance to economic development.
“One thing I would tell the citizens of District 3 is that if you like Zack, you’re probably going to get some very similar leadership from me,” he said.
Collins, who works at United Guaranty, also said he is interested in improving transparency, referencing closed-session meetings, and a need for a more efficient city budget that doesn’t rise sharply.
Outling also trumpets the cause of economic development, which he said the city can strengthen by making it easier and more efficient to invest money. One way to do that would be creating an ombudsman in the city manager’s office, he said. The ombudsman would track projects and make sure they didn’t get stuck in the city’s process, Outling said. It would differ from the assistant city manager for economic development because the position would focus on ironing out red tape and walking each project from one step to the next. As an appointed councilman, Outling is already working on this idea, he said.
Before becoming a councilman, Outling served as the chair of the city’s minimum housing commission, and he maintains an interest in improving Greensboro’s housing stock both for the sake of residents and business opportunities. There is more the city could do to connect prospective buyers with condemned properties that need buyers, a win-win proposition, he said.
Like Collins, he pointed to downtown and the airport as areas of great economic development opportunity, but he also said the city needs to partner with other local government bodies on a Randolph County megasite project that could bring thousands of jobs to the area.
Outling, a registered Democrat who worked as a corporate lawyer on Wall Street and now on Elm Street, is running against two white Republicans in a district with demographics that lean towards his competition. But the election is nonpartisan, and Outling downplayed party affiliation, as did Collins and Picarelli.
“I’m results-driven and solution-oriented,” Outling said, adding that voters don’t care about party politics in a race like this as much as whether a candidate can get things done. “I’ve proven that I am analytical and can develop solutions to complex problems.”
Outling described himself as more than a participant, but a leader, saying he helped reduce the amount of time it took to reach a solution for minimum housing cases and helped initiate a new city approach to fines and landlord accountability that is better for all parties involved.
“I have a disposition for action,” he said. “Action over talk, solutions over rhetoric. People respond to what you can actually do for them and how you make them feel.”
Picarelli, the former chair of the Guilford County Republican Party and a human relations commissioner, put in his paperwork to run for District 3 in the last hour of filing, delayed because of confusion created by a state law that could have radically reformed city council and as he waited to see if another rumored contender would file.
Picarelli works at the regional manager for Grande Cheese Company, and wants to see the food and beverage industry grow as part of downtown’s economic boom. His position gives him insight into the industry and valuable connections that would inform his perspective on council, he said.
Economic development is one of his top issues, alongside downtown specifically, public safety and also food deserts.
Like Collins, Picarelli quickly mentioned his support for the police department’s new community-oriented policing emphasis. He has often spoken in support of the department, and shortly after filing said he applauds the Greensboro Police Department for being an early adopter of body-worn cameras. While discussing policing, Picarelli admitted that the city suffers from a “big divide” on race relations overall, saying the city could do a better job facilitating discussion and harmony.
The city could also do more to promote the benefits of downtown development, turning away from the city’s sprawl and filling in underused space in the city core. Blossoming cities like Asheville are a great example of what is possible, he said.
Picarelli also wants the city to look more closely at what it can do to support public education, mentioning the local Say Yes to Education campaign. The county officially oversees education, but some current council members have expressed similar sentiment about opportunities for partnership.
Picarelli distanced himself from some local Republicans who decry government waste, saying careful spending is important but that council’s job is also to invest and help grow the tax base so that budget cuts aren’t necessary.
“We have to develop a stronger base so that we have enough money coming in to avoid future cuts,” he said. “You can’t save your way to prosperity.”