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When Mistrust Rules: Council’s February Split Vote Analysis

036-001by Lisa Wilbourne

Debate Over Early Voting Sites

The outcome of city council’s discussion on early voting sites for the municipal election this November was reported in February Council Review. It reads, “In preparation for this year’s municipal elections, the Pitt County Board of Elections sought input from the city on whether they would like to pay for additional one-stop early voting sites (the county provides two — one at the Agricultural Center located north of the river, the other at the Community Schools Building south of town), and where they would like those sites to be. On the 25th, council unanimously agreed to pay for two additional sites — one at the Drew Steele Center on Elm Street, the other at the PATS Conference Room at the West Fifth Street government complex. The additional sites will operate for one week beginning October 28 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The estimated cost of each site is $2,919. Though the council came to a unanimous agreement, this item was a topic of debate at both the Feb. 14 and 25 meetings. [PDF, video 1, video 2]”

Early voting is not a particularly controversial issue. The entire council would like to see more people engaged in the political process. So how did this turn into an hour-long debate spanning two council meetings?

Mistrust. That’s how.

Let’s remember one key event from just after the 2011 municipal election that seated this crop of officials: Council tinkering with the occupancy code to allow four unrelated occupants instead of the city-wide limit of three, in just one small section of a neighborhood surrounding East Carolina University’s main campus. The action prompted public outcry and was met with fervent opposition from the councilor (Marion Blackburn) representing residents of the affected district. (See our analysis and other coverage.)

A council majority ramming this action through in Blackburn’s district without her support, with overwhelming opposition from the public – not to mention neighborhoods throughout the city, the city’s own Planning and Zoning and Historic Preservation commissions, and even ECU itself –  and with not one person offering sound reasons for increasing the limit in the one area, makes it easy to see why Blackburn might be mistrustful of her colleagues’ intentions.

When Councilor Max Joyner said he wanted an early voting site on campus, Blackburn’s response seemed to be one of horror and deep suspicion. (When’s the last time a Republican tried to increase voter turnout, among young people especially? Or that a Democrat opposed it? Just shows that national party affiliations have little bearing on local politics.)

Blackburn’s likely fear was that students would be used to oust her from her seat in favor of someone who would further the interests already well represented on council, by focusing the district three race on how much students pay for rent in the university neighborhood — an issue that would surely draw a crowd, though not one particularly well informed – or concerned – about the longer-term effects. (Longer than the four years it takes to graduate, anyway.)

So Blackburn rattled off a list: It’s unprecedented to have early voting on campus for a municipal election; there’s been no empirical evidence showing whether this is a good idea; there are no election officials at the meeting to give guidance.

Joyner greeted Blackburn’s negative response to his suggestion with incredulity. Why would anyone want to deny students the easy opportunity to vote? He was just trying to reach out to the students, to to engage them in local politics (because, you know college students — they just can’t get enough of local politics).

Those supporting the polling site (Joyner, Councilor Dennis Mitchell, and Mayor Allen Thomas) didn’t have much to say to counter Blackburn. Instead, in a display of the worst kind of playground politics, they offered a finger-pointing, “gotcha” type of response against Councilor (and ECU professor) Calvin Mercer’s objection, which was a fair one: Politicians should have nothing to do with choosing polling places.

That “gotcha” response is one of the Mayor’s specialties. It relies on repetition of largely tangential points, and speaking in scornful tones about the opposition — while portraying oneself as noble and righteous.

Thomas and Joyner harped about how Mercer has voted on early voting sites in the past — “we’ve always done this,” Joyner said. Always. Okay, twice. 2009 and 2011. Mercer dusted off records to show he was uncomfortable about it those times, too.

As with most playground interactions, reason did not prevail. Thomas made constant reminders of how Mercer did it before, and accused him of being political. (There’s more on the mayor’s high-handedness at the end of this editorial).

By the time council reconvened on Feb. 25, the Pitt County Board of Elections had weighed in: An early voting site on campus would not be approved. The space available is too small, the parking inadequate.

Instead of the on-campus site, Joyner “stretched out an olive branch” and used Blackburn’s suggestion, the Drew Steele Center. It is centrally located, is accessible to persons with disabilities, is near the bus lines, has ample parking, and can accommodate plenty of people.

Mercer nevertheless stuck to his long-held position, trying (and failing) to get consensus for having the board of elections pick sites, using council-recommended parameters.

Thomas stuck to his playground persona.

In the end, council voted unanimously to pay for two additional early voting sites: one at the county government complex on West Fifth; the other at the Drew Steele Center on Elm.

No Compromise on Economic Development Zones — Town Commons

In the same February Council Review, we reported on the creation of six new economic development zones: “In a 4-2 split on Feb.14, (Rose Glover, Max Joyner, Dennis Mitchell, Kandie Smith for; Marion Blackburn, Calvin Mercer against) council designated six zones to help prioritize economic development programs, projects and incentives throughout the city. The zones — airport, center city, Dickinson Ave., East Tenth St., medical district and West Greenville — will let the private sector know the city wants to increase economic development in those designated areas. [PDF, video]”

The vote made official Greenville’s interest in improving the six designated areas. The designation itself does nothing except give city staff areas to focus on as they create initiatives to get the private sector involved.

Senior Planner Carl Rees said these zones are places “where we might concentrate economic development activity. The zones,” he continued, “were selected for potential for opportunity for investment, availability of infrastructure, relative lack of wealth, total employment and commercial services.”

This is an effort to limit sprawl; to get developers to invest in the places where power, roads, water lines, etc. already exist; to bring jobs to places where people already live and need work; to revitalize areas that have been depressed, in some cases, for decades.

All of council can, should — and even does — get behind this. In theory.

Enter the mistrust.

Blackburn, ever the champion of the city’s parks, was highly suspicious of the Town Commons’ inclusion in the center city zone and said she was unwilling to send developers the message that the land was open for development. She tried to get council support to remove the Town Commons from the zone, but only Mercer supported her.

Mitchell said that the park’s inclusion in the zone would encourage improvements like a bridge to River Park North and other efforts that would enhance and preserve the park.

Mercer, seeing that the city council could easily come to a compromise and have a unanimous vote, suggested council support removing the Town Commons from the zone.

No compromise came, however. A majority — Smith, Joyner, Glover and Mitchell — voted to approve designating the zones as they were presented.

The Trouble with Transparency

Again from our February Council Review: “On Feb. 25, council approved a series of workshops to be held in City Hall Conference Room 337 (a room without video capability) in March and April on sanitation, budget, economic development, stormwater and the comprehensive crime plan in a 4-2 vote (Glover, Joyner, Mitchell, Smith for; Blackburn, Mercer against). These workshops are considered special meetings of the city council, and councilors can vote during them. [video]”

Mercer and Blackburn supported having the series of workshops in the council chambers, the only location that has equipment available for televising meetings.

Other councilors complained that they were less comfortable in council chambers. They wouldn’t be able to dress casually if the meetings were televised. They would get hungry, and didn’t want to eat on television. They wanted to be more relaxed than the stuffy council chambers would allow.

These are the people making our communal decisions. People who consider doing the people’s work to be — well, such a hassle.

And doing it out in the open to be an even bigger one.

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Responses (3)

  1. Carol Clawson Williams says:

    Thank you for your reporting on our city news. I would like to send you a donation but I don’t do that on the internet. Only through snail mail. Do you have a snail mail address? Keep up the good work!

  2. Candace Pearce says:

    Great article!

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