GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – There were no surprises with all the veto overrides, with their conflicting issues for parents and their children, or the passing of the broad and deep voting rights changes or the adjustments for charter schools and building codes during the dueling marathon sessions held by the North Carolina House and Senate on Wednesday night.
No, even more surprising than Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s taking the gavel and running the Senate session for the first time in a very long time, was the change to the final piece of legislation adopted for the day: Senate Bill 9.
You know this bill, the “Local Omnibus Bill,” dealing with the town of Cary and other municipalities, because Rep. Jon Hardister back in June amended it to address how the opening on the Guilford County Board of Education would be filled.
That’s still part of the bill passed into law on party-line votes, but more last-minute additions coordinated by Hardister and other lawmakers have rejuvenated a controversial program that will have a profound effect on the city governments in Greensboro and Winston-Salem: Civic Review Boards.
This idea, first debated and considered in the spring, when House Bill 470 was brought by Hardister and Rep. Jeff Zenger (R-Forsyth) and Rep. Kyle Hall (R-Stokes). That bill purported to change city charters and create 5-person boards that could usurp the human resources-type decisions by city managers.
It advanced nearly to the House floor before being withdrawn because of mounting opposition, which included leaders in both cities.
Hardister had promised at the time that lawmakers could expect an amended version of the bill, and that clock struck at just before 8 p.m. Wednesday, when SB 9, withdrawn from concurrence by the Senate because of problems some thought related to the Guilford County portion of the bill, re-emerged from a conference committee with the review boards added in a limited form.
“We created the conference committee for SB 9 to remove a section of the bill related to Haywood County,” Hardister said. “There was disagreement between the Haywood County delegation on this section, so we removed it in the conference committee.“
But the committees of three members each from the House and Senate – including Hardister, Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth) – came back with language that added the review boards for police and fire departments only, assuaging a small portion of the complaints brought by city leaders when HB 470 was debated. Hardister was the only appointee who represents even a sliver of either city.
But Sens. Paul Lowe (D-Forsyth) and Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) do, and they spoke out strongly against the additions when the Senate debated the bill before its perfunctory vote.
“We didn’t ask for this bill in Winston-Salem and have asked to be removed from the bill [in previous discussions] because the citizens and city officials addressed do not want or need this bill,” Lowe said. “It’s the wrong way to go about this. Nothing should be forced on a city and its citizenry that it didn’t request.”
Said Robinson: “I just want to ditto to some of what Sen. Lowe said.”
Not a new idea
Hardister said lawmakers had been working on citizen review boards for several months. “The only difference is that this board will only pertain to the employees of the Police Department and the Fire Department,” he wrote in an email to WGHP. “We narrowed it down so it only pertains to first responders, rather than to all employees.
“This was done after receiving feedback from citizens, local elected officials and city employees. There was some disagreement on the policy as a whole, so we narrowed it down in a form of a compromise; some wanted to create a Civil Service Review Board for all city employees, while others didn’t want to create one at all. However, there seemed to be more agreement on the concept of doing it for first responders, who put their lives on the line to keep us safe.
“The local Fire Fighters Association and the Police Benevolent Association, which collectively represent hundreds of local employees, were in favor of the policy and were advocating for it.”
Neither Krawiec nor a spokesperson for Berger responded to questions from WGHP. Lowe didn’t respond immediately to a follow-up phone call. There was no comment from Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba or Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines.
But one of the more vocal critics during the spring hearing was Angela Carmon, the city attorney for Winston-Salem, who said, “This board would have the opportunity to overturn a firing decision by the city manager.”
On Thursday Carmon told WGHP that she was reviewing the most recent version of the bill and was not prepared to comment on its specifics.
“The current legislation appears to contain significant differences from earlier versions of the legislation previously housed in HB 470 Greensboro/Winston-Salem Civil Service Board, including but not limited to the timeframe for requesting a hearing,” she said in an email.
Dave Coker, president of Professional Firefighters of Greensboro-IAFF, Local 947, said his organization has been seeking such legislation since 2016. “We believe a civil service board is good public policy, and we are excited to move forward.”
But Sharon Hightower, a longtime member of the Greensboro City Council, complained that the law now only focused on two departments, “which says to me if you really cared about how the structure was, you would care about it for all employees. It wouldn’t be just certain employees that would be a benefit of this civil service board.”
How it happened
Part of the surprise that perhaps caught Lowe and Robinson off-guard also was in how the bill moved simultaneously through both chambers, rather than bouncing from one to the other. Both were waiting for its arrival, however, and it was odd that when the Senate passed the bill officially at 8:11, the House already had stamped it at 8:06 and gone to dinner.
Government experts said that such an action required special consideration, such as suspension of rules in the House, but it’s unclear whether that formal step was taken.
“When a chamber (in this case, the Senate), objects to concur with the changes made to a bill in the opposing chamber (in this case, the House), conferees are appointed to negotiate changes to the bill,” Hardister said. “This was all done yesterday. The conferees agreed to sign the conference report after making adjustments to the bill.”