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The Unclaimed Action Item: Who’s Behind the Staff Directive

by Lisa Wilbourne

In March, Greenville City Council gave city staff the order “to present … code amendment alternatives to permit more than 3 unrelated persons occupancy in residential structures.”

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ANALYSIS

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As part of their research, which included gathering background information on the current standard and a survey of similar communities, staff held three public input sessions where people could fill out a questionnaire and write comments. The form was also available online.

You can read the full staff report, including the findings from the public input questionnaire, here (pages 136-173).

One of the most frequently asked questions at the city’s public input sessions was where the motivation for the change originated. Staff did not answer questions about motive, referring only to the goal handed down from council.

The Greenville Guardian has therefore looked into the question. The short answer: Mayor Allen Thomas.

Allen Thomas Swearing-In

October 2011: Campaign Forum

During the 2011 campaign that saw Thomas elected mayor, a brief mention of the three unrelated rule indicates it was already on his mind.

The following comes from a candidate forum held at Winslow’s Tavern on October 28, 2011. Mayoral candidates (Pat Dunn, Robert O’Neal and Allen Thomas) answered questions from WITN news anchor Dave Jordan, Daily Reflector editorial page editor Brian Colligan, and ECU Student Government Association President Joshua Martinkovic. It aired live on Henry Hinton’s talk show Talk of the Town, on WTIB 103.7. Listen to the archive here.

Joshua Martinkovic asked (36 minutes in): “There are many landlords who do not currently enforce the rule of 3, and students have fallen victim to legal issues because of it. My question is how would you protect student rights and hold landlords accountable?” 

Allen Thomas replied(39 minutes in) : “I think we’ve seen some larger homes around the university area that would rather have four or five or six individuals living in those homes but because of our current ordinance and regulations, no less [sic] than three people that are related, that are not related can live in a particular property.”

When asked during an email exchange with Thomas if the issue of changing the occupancy standard came up during his campaign for mayor, he responded on July 3, “No this did not originate in the campaign — unless it was originated by the at-large candidates (crime in the University area was a clearly a topic). This originated this year as a request of citizens concerned about crime and rapid dilapidation in the university area during our goal making process and was approved by vote of council.”  

January 2012: Planning Retreat

In January, City Council held a two-day planning retreat at Bradford Creek Golf Course. The retreat, an informal but critical council session, was a time for the newly seated council to create the goals they hope to achieve in their two years together. These strategic goals and their related action items provide city staff with a work plan, coordinated with and supportive of the council’s vision. The areas of this council’s particular interest are economic development, infrastructure (including information technology), neighborhood preservation, parks and recreation (including greenways), public safety, and public transportation.

Since the planning retreat is an official council meeting, North Carolina’s public records law applies. Due to a series of unusual events, the records are more difficult to access than is normally the case. Since the meeting was not held in council chambers, the session was not recorded on video, and due to a computer glitch, the city clerk’s minutes were corrupted. The audio recording, transferred to digital copy, has its challenges — the major difficulty being the speakers’ different distances from the microphone. The city clerk is in the slow process of transcribing minutes from the audio recording.

This two-minute clip covers the meeting’s discussion on neighborhood preservation.

During the discussion, councilor Max Joyner asked to look at the rules and regulations regarding the historical district and the cost associated with repair and upkeep, stating a goal of bringing down the cost of repairs.

Semi-audible mumblings between Joyner and Mayor Thomas followed.

Joyner: “should we drop the [inaudible] bomb?”
Thomas [laughs]: “I’ll let you do that. [inaudible] you up on that grenade.”
Joyner: “I ain’t gonna do it.”
Thomas: “…you mean the three person tenants, tenants of three, your idea, go ahead and mention it.”

Whether Joyner or Thomas’ idea, Thomas was the one who voiced it before the group. Increasing the occupancy standard was officially introduced as part of the strategic neighborhood preservation goal.  

March 5: City Council Meeting

At this regular meeting, council reviewed the goals from the January planning session to provide clarification and feedback so they could approve a final version at the next meeting.

For the third time, the three unrelated rule came up (the conversation begins at the 3:36 mark). For the third time, Mayor Thomas brought it up, couched within a suggestion to re-assess historical areas and “look at properties and see if there are adjustments that need to be made in some areas.” He then added, “also considering some of the larger Victorian properties, I know we have the three-person unrelated rule — look if there’s a special permit type component for the properties that appropriately financially handle potentially handle that if that’s an option.”

He went on, “That’s something some council members have talked about in the past.” Which council members and when he does not say (and remember — though the October campaign forum holds a different account of history — he’d said in a July email (see “October 11: Campaign Forum” section) this wasn’t brought up until this year, rendering his use of the word “past” perplexing.)

Councilor Marion Blackburn responded, saying she’d like to keep the occupancy standard separate from the goals since it would be a policy change. Only minutes before in the same meeting, the mayor himself recognized a distinction between strategic goals and policy when council members tried to broadly define ecotourism as a goal within economic development (same link, time mark 3:28).

Joyner added, “maybe a special use-type of situation for the three unrelated needs to be looked at.” In line with his comments at the January session, he said “it is just about cost-prohibitive to make repairs on some of those houses, and it’s driving the values down.” He went on, “So I want to concur with you about needing to look at it.”

The strategic goals were only being reviewed at this meeting; no votes took place.

March 8: City Council Meeting

In this meeting (2:40 mark), council approved the strategic goals they began working on in January and reviewed at the previous meeting, three days prior.

Blackburn and Councilor Calvin Mercer expressed concern about the three unrelated action item because the wording of the item implies that a change will be made. Mercer said the wording, “‘to present alternatives to permit more than three unrelated people’ is directing staff to do that, no matter what the people say.”

Blackburn, Mercer and Councilor Kandie Smith voted to re-word the item; Rose Glover, Joyner and Dennis Mitchell voted against. Thomas broke the tie, and the staff directive to find a way to increase occupancy stood.

Final votes fell the same way (Blackburn, Mercer, Smith opposing; Glover, Joyner, Mitchell supporting; tie broken by Thomas). The neighborhood preservation goal and the related action items, including “present … code amendment alternatives to permit more than 3 unrelated persons occupancy in residential structures” passed. 

March 20: Article in The East Carolinian

An article published on March 20 in the East Carolinian reads,

“Mayor Allen Thomas is in favor of a revision that will allow some homeowners around the university to apply for a special permit that would be renewed each year. He said it would allow owners of the large Victorian homes around campus with plenty of parking and four or five bedrooms with multiple bathrooms to rent to more than three unrelated people in one home. … ‘About 70 percent of the city is rental property in Greenville and those people have rights to [sic],’ Thomas said. ‘We have large properties where people have difficulty paying their mortgage, and they are citizens to [sic] and they have the right to make their case.’”

June 28: Thomas and Joyner on Talk of the Town

Though the occupancy issue was not a topic of discussion between Henry Hinton, Joyner and Thomas on Hinton’s talk radio show on WTIB, Thomas spoke generally about how the mayor does not have a vote except in the case of a tie. About 43 minutes into the recording he said, “All the influence I have is in my advocacy for issues.”

Yet, in the public record email exchange after The Greenville Guardian invited Thomas to write an opinion piece on why he supports increasing the occupancy standard, he was adamant about not providing advocacy on issues:

“One of the important responsibilities as an elected official is to keep an open mind to the facts gathered, presented — and take into consideration as you make a decision. You are asking me for a pre-set close minded opinion without the underlying context of due-diligence as directed for presention [sic] by staff. Others may operate that way, but I do not operate that way.”

In Summary

Mayor Thomas has denied having anything to do with directing staff to find a way to increase occupancy limits. He has denied any awareness of it being written in a leading way. He indicated support for increasing the standard before his election, and denied doing so after taking office.

He shot down the inclusion of broad ecotourism goals as “hair-splitting” and giving too much guidance to staff for its inclusion in the strategic economic development goal, then he supported and put forward a very specific, clearly directed matter of policy in the neighborhood preservation goal. At the same meeting. Minutes apart.

The mayor said all his influence lies in advocacy, then said he would be negligent to advocate.


City Council will hear staff’s report on the occupancy standard on Thursday, August 9 meeting at 7 p.m. There will be a public comment period.

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Editor’s note: We struggled with the correct category for this piece, and decided “In Our Opinion” was not appropriate. The last line of the post as it originally appeared, which constituted opinion, has been removed. The facts speak for themselves, and “Analysis” better describes the enterprise reporting which produced the article.

The Greenville Guardian encourages reader participation. In an effort to promote and maintain civility, thoughtful discussion, and the useful exchange of ideas, we require a full name (first and last) and valid email address be ascribed to each comment. Email addresses will not be published.

Responses (5)

  1. Dennis Mitchell says:

    After listening to the audio, it sounds like the conversation regarding the 3 or more unrelated was between Marion Blackburn and the Mayor. It was ironic that Marion’s comments were left out of the transcription of the audio. It appears that the Mayor asked Marion about a previous conversation they had between each other regarding the 3 unrelated rule and she gets a little nervous and decides to water it down. The conversation with Max and the Mayor ended with I will let you do that and we don’t know what they are talking about…. Interesting, thanks for the audio…

    • Lisa Wilbourne says:

      I spoke with Marion Blackburn yesterday about that part of the audio that indicates a previous conversation between her and the mayor. For the record, she shared with me that after the election Allen Thomas asked her what she thought about changing the occupancy standard (yet another interesting fact considering Thomas told me the issue didn’t arise until this year when some citizens brought it up). At that time, she told him she wouldn’t be opposed to learning more about it. She did some research and by the time of the January planning retreat, she had reached the conclusion that increasing the number of unrelated residents would be harmful to the neighborhoods in her district and to the city overall, and did not want to consider changing it.

      I agree that the audio is difficult to assess. I included it because it shows an undercurrent of intention regarding the occupancy standard, and a recognition that it will be met with public disapproval.

    • Artemis Kares says:

      I’ve listened to the part of the audio Mr. Mitchell references several times and I don’t agree that Ms. Blackburn “gets a little nervous and decides to water it down. ” I think she appropriately suggests a systematic approach. Thanks to the Guardian for posting the audio. Listening to what was actually said, we can each have our own interpretation.

  2. Hugh Cox says:

    A comparison of the Friday, August 17, 2012, Daily Reflector article (“Joyner: Plan Inspired by Neighborhood” at http://www.reflector.com/news/joyner-truna-inspired-initiative-1178017 ) is insightful. Although council member Max Joyner’s initiative is described as “new” in the Daily Reflector, his plan to increase the “more than three” occupancy goes back months according to the Greenville Guardian’s analysis above.
    It appears that Mr. Joyner had to wait until students and some landlords arrived back in the Tar River University neighborhood before he could work the streets and summon enough supporters for a news event.
    Perhaps it would have been more dignified and less secret if Mr. Joyner had sought citizen input before introducing his unpopular occupancy initiative at a Council meeting.

  3. […] Joyner and Allen Thomas half-jokingly called it during council’s January planning session. (See The Unclaimed Action Item for the history of the proposal, documenting Thomas’ support for the change during his campaign […]

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