Featured photo: An archival photo of fired Greensboro sanitation workers (courtesy photo)

On May 1 and May 2 respectively, Winston-Salem and Greensboro city councils voted on a resolution to oppose HB 470, a bill that would create a civil service board for each city if passed by the state legislature. City workers who have been cited for termination, suspended or demoted could appeal to the civil service board even after the city managers make their final decisions. It outlined the possibility for appeal hearings, granting additional job protections for city workers.

A civil service board would also open up proceedings to the public eye. In accordance with the Open Meetings Law, the meetings could be recorded and viewed by the public.

The bill had support from local House members, and was sponsored by Rep. Jeff Zenger (R-Forsyth), House Whip Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) and Rep. Kyle Hall (R-Forsyth)

Members of both councils have criticized the bill and questioned its necessity; Greensboro’s council voted 5-3 to pass their resolution against the bill, while Winston-Salem’s resolution passed unanimously.

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan and council members Zack Matheny and Tammi Thurm voted to oppose the resolution against the bill. Council member Hugh Holston was absent. 

The purpose of the cities’ resolutions was to send a message of disapproval to the state legislature regarding the bill.

Most recently, the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Rules and Operations on April 27.

In an interview with TCB, Greensboro’s Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, who voted to oppose the bill, said, “We need, as a council and a city, to fix this problem…. We don’t have a system to fix it. We need to establish that. That’s what I want to work on.”

Winston-Salem’s representative for the West Ward and sole Republican on the council Robert C. Clark opposed the bill, telling TCB that his concern was that the “legislator never spoke to the city,” claiming that they “did not take our phone calls.” 

“I think this is a topic that… interested parties need to sit down and work it out,” Clark said, adding that he’d be “happy to sit down with anyone that wants to, and we’ll chat about it.”

Council members in favor of the bill echoed concerns from city employees.

During Greensboro’s May 2 council meeting, Vaughan said that she thinks workers “should be able to make sure that policy and procedure was followed” when they are being fired, demoted, suspended etc.

Position of city leadership

Both city councils have pushed the narrative that this is a “bad bill,” in the words of Winston-Salem Mayor Pro Tempore Denise D. Adams during the May 1 city council meeting. Greensboro council member Sharon Hightower took issue with the possible makeup of a civil service board, noting that the way the bill is currently written, that city council would only get to appoint one representative. 

“Currently, council will only get one appointee,” Hightower said. “We’ve got nine people up here with nine different opinions of who we want on that board.” 

Greensboro and Winston-Salem council members raised concerns that some of the city manager’s authority could be taken away. Winston-Salem City Manager Lee Garrity also pushed back against the bill.

“I don’t think there’s a terrible problem with our current system, but we have identified some things that can be… improved,” Garrity said during the May 1 council meeting.

“The process takes too long. No employee should have to wait weeks and months before they find out, particularly if they’ve been suspended without pay,” Garrity acknowledged, adding that the city is going to “institute a very strict rule, it’s coming with the budget… that will hold all of us accountable if we don’t meet a much faster turnaround time for grievances.”

Before Garrity’s commitment to addressing the city’s grievance procedure, Winston-Salem’s Southwest Ward representative Kevin Mundy expressed uncertainty over whether to join other council members in a united front against the bill.

Mundy said that he was concerned about not having “anything in place” to address city workers’ concerns about grievance procedures if the bill does not pass. Mundy said that workers have been bringing it to the city’s attention “for at least two-and-a-half years,” noting the length he’s been in office. 

“At this time that we are so concerned about recruiting and retaining police officers and firefighters this is one of their biggest concerns that they’ve been bringing to us over and over,” Mundy said. “Until I have some kind of commitment from our city management staff, I can’t vote in favor of sending to the state legislature a document that says, ‘I don’t wanna pass this state [legislation],’ because after that there’s no safety net for these folks.” Adams acknowledged that the city had made mistakes in the past but asked: “Give us a chance to fix it.”

Council members from both cities seemed blindsided at the speed in which the bill passed through the legislature.

History of the bill

On March 23, HB 470 was filed in the state House, where it recently passed. It is now being heard in the state Senate.

A considerable turnout of city workers, union representatives and supporters showed up to the April 4 Greensboro City Council meeting, rallying on the plaza steps outside Melvin Municipal Building before attending the meeting inside. Several city workers like local union UE150 Vice President Bryce Carter addressed their desire for a $20/hr minimum wage and a civil service board during the public comment period.

Workers with the city of Greensboro rally outside of the municipal building before an April 4 city council meeting. (photo by Gale Melcher)

Hightower questioned whether it was fair that union members could potentially be elected to the board and speak for non-union members

“I don’t think so,” Hightower said, adding that she felt the bill was “done in the dark.”

“You’re gonna have members on this board who are gonna represent a union,” she said. “Do they have HR experience? Do they have policy knowledge? Do they have legal knowledge? You’re putting that in the hands of novice people that don’t have that.”

Many city workers and supporters of the bill spoke during the May 2 public hearing on the matter.

“Very few organizations are devoid of discrimination, historically,” said Marcus Cox, executive board member of Professional Fire Fighters of Greensboro, a labor organization representing the city’s firefighters. “If a decision is made that directly affects an employee’s career or livelihood, transparency on how that decision is made should be accessible.”.

City workers in Greensboro have been dissatisfied with the city’s grievance procedure for years, as noted by Carter. A Facebook post by local union UE150 shows a picture from the 1970s of fired Greensboro sanitation workers who were fighting for reinstatement. The workers are shown standing outside the Carolina Peacemaker, the city’s African American community newspaper established in 1967.

An archival photo of fired Greensboro sanitation workers (courtesy photo)

“The campaign for a Civil Service Board is part of a long history of majority-Black city workers being terminated without a chance to [be] heard,” the post reads.

During the May 2 city council meeting, Carter said that workers are pushing for the civil service board because they believe it would aid worker representation during the process by allowing them to share evidence that could be important to their case rather than being dismissed without a chance to share their side of the story. 

“It’s all about policy,” Carter said, adding that the board could help address inconsistencies in firing.

What would this bill actually do?

If passed, the bill would amend both cities’ charters to allow for a civil service board that would consist of five members. 

Board members’ terms would last two years, and members must be qualified voters of the city and cannot be employed by the city or serve on city council. One member would be selected by each city council during a council meeting and another member would be chosen by the mutual agreement of the city’s police and fire chiefs. 

Two members would be elected by members of the classified service of the city — which includes all officers and employees of the city except the city manager, department directors and their assistant directors, the city clerk, fire and police department leadership, or officers elected by the people. The election for these two members would be held on a normal city workday, and the last board member would be selected by majority vote of the four other members already selected. If a member is not elected by majority vote of the four other members, city council would appoint a member to the board.

The board may create and amend rules, and submit them to the city council for approval.

Any member of the classified service of the city who desires a hearing can file a request with the city clerk within 10 days after learning of the action that they take issue with. The grievance procedure should conclude within 30 days.

Within 10 days after the conclusion of the hearing, the board would submit their decision in writing. If the board determines the action was not justified, they would order to have it rescinded.

Within 10 days of receipt of the board’s decision, either party may appeal to the county’s Superior Court for a trial de novo, which would be a new trial on the entire case.

While city leaders in Greenboro and Winston-Salem have pushed back on this idea, other cities in the state already have civil service boards.

Asheville’s board has two city council appointees and two members elected by the classified service, with one member appointed by those four members. The city of Charlotte has a board of nine members — three appointed by the mayor and six appointed by the city council.

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