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And So It Begins…

Guardian Staff Report

The November election proved a turning point for Greenville’s city council.

Marion Blackburn, who held the district 3 seat since 2009, was replaced by 23-year-old McLean Godley. In D5, 32-year-old P.J. Connelly defeated one-termer Dr. Richard Croskery, who won the seat in 2013.

It remains to be seen how the new mix will change the city’s course, but the newly elected council’s planning meeting, held at the ned of January, offered some early indications.

photo: City of Greenville

City Hall, site of the two-day planning session

Many believe the two new members – Connelly and Godley – will support the initiatives and policy objectives of Mayor Allen Thomas, who won a third consecutive term in November. Yet the two new councilors took very different paths to office.

Connelly used a door-to-door campaign, meaning he does not necessarily owe his victory to any particular interest group, and could emerge as an independent thinker. Godley, who has been more closely associated with Thomas, campaigned among student members of ECU fraternities and sororities, delivering them to the polls in buses which displayed his campaign’s signage.

Despite widespread opposition – voiced by numerous city boards, ECU, Cypress Glen, and a large number of citizens – the so-called “university overlay” zoning district remains, and could occupy a key place in the council’s work over the coming two years. It was this district where the two previous councils first supported and then rescinded (respectively) a rule allowing four unrelated tenants to reside in single-family homes.

That reversal has prevented permits for such uses since 2014. Still, within the university community, rental homes comprise a large percentage of the housing stock. Support and opposition to increases in rental housing availability for students in “traditional” single-family structures will therefore likely remain a wedge for the new council.

On the previous council, Thomas regularly got the support of returning councilors Kandie Smith (D1) and Rose Glover (D2). Smith, who often calls for more communication from the city to residents of her district, is challenging Jean Farmer-Butterfield for the District 24 N.C. House seat in the Democratic primary. Something to watch for is how, or if, Smith adapts her role on council as her campaign for the statehouse proceeds.

Long-time councilor Calvin Mercer (at-large) is likely to keep pushing for planning that includes what he considers “thoughtful” zoning and land use. While his focus on minutia is tedious at times, Mercer says his policy emphasis is linked with healthy city growth, and often cites Greenville Boulevard as an example of poor planning.

Second-term D4 councilor Rick Smiley brings a “just the facts” approach. His use of data sometimes paints him as the council’s technocrat, using reports derived from city-generated statistics to point up what he considers to be flaws of process, and to propose new approaches which might alleviate them–particularly when it comes to budgeting.

Some key issues facing city council as the new body’s two-year term begins:

–Budget and deficit spending. In recent years, the city has generally drawn down its savings account. Without the excess fund balance, there is less to draw upon. Addressing this narrowing of funds could prove challenging for  the new council.

–Safety. This is always a top priority for council, and key areas are violent crime, and pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities. Maintaining and perhaps expanding funding to combat these challenges could prove difficult in a tight budget climate.

–Tar River. The previous council made strides toward new uses of the river and the Town Common, drawing on broad public engagement and support. Some voices on the council and in the city are seeking aggressive development of the Town Common, more than what some others deem suitable for a park.

— Capital projects. The council will discuss big building projects, but must figure out how to pay for them. Politics traditionally trumps need in determining which projects get priority; given the potential new pro-development voting bloc now in place, there’s no reason to expect any change in that formula.

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