GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – Following a contentious hearing about a controversial bill to create review boards for many decisions about employees of Greensboro and Winston-Salem – including police officers, firefighters and paramedics – sponsors in the North Carolina House have for the moment pulled the bill back to committee.

House Bill 470, which would purport to change city charters and create 5-person boards – called a Civil Service Board – that could usurp the human resources-type decisions by city managers, received a favorable report in the House Local Government and Rules committees on Tuesday. If approved by the House – and an amendment has been promised – then bill would go to the Senate, but it’s a local bill that is not subject to a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper.

But a couple of hours after that committee review, Rep. Jeff Zenger (R-Lewisville) and Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Whitsett) pulled the bill at least for the time being and returned it to the Rules Committee while they consider their next options.

They expressed some surprise at opposition to the bill, considering, as Zenger said, the bill had been around since at least March 23. “During that time we had heard of support for the bill and had no serious opposition,” Zenger said in an email response to a query from WGHP. “Today was not ‘rushed’ but normal operating for the house.

“We were completely unaware of any serious opposition until literally 5 minutes before the first committee meeting. The bill has been pulled from the calendar today and sent back to the Rules of the Operation of the House committee.

“There is at least one municipality that wants to be added to this and a change requested. It will sit until these are worked out.”

He didn’t elaborate on who might want to be added or how the bill could change. During the Rules Committee hearing on Tuesday afternoon, seven members of the public spoke for and against HB 470, with those in leadership positions with the cities against the bill and representatives of union-type groups representing employees for it.

This bill is solely about cities, but its three primary sponsors District 74 Rep. Zenger, District 59 Rep. Hardister and its third sponsor, District 91 Rep. Kyle Hall (R-King), represent districts that touch only on small bits of each city.

It’s unclear how some members of the House whose districts are comprised entirely or mostly with sections of each city might want to adjust the bill, but at least one, Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Greensboro), is said to be working on an amendment that was discussed outside the hearing.

Hardister introduced the bill in Rules, and he said the Civil Service Review Board would “add an extra layer of due process in employment and discipline [of employees]. I think five cities have this in place.”

Rep. Amos Quick (D-Greensboro) (NCGA)
Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Greensboro) (NCGA)

He also said that Clemmons, whose District 57 includes the northern extremes of the city, was preparing an amendment, although it was unclear what that amendment some termed a “compromise” would include. Clemmons didn’t respond immediately to a text message seeking clarity.

State Rep. Amos Quick (D-Greensboro), who represents the eastern part of the city, said that was important. “Rep. Hardister always has been a man of his word, and I look forward to the amended version of this bill. As it is entered, my vote is ‘no.’”

What it would do

As the bill currently reads, a Civil Service Board would be an extension and overlay of both the elected city councils and the hired city managers, and it would establish processes for reviewing issues brought before it.

The bill specifies that the 5-person boards would consist of two members appointed by the City Council – which also would designate the board’s chair – and two elected by the “classified service of the city” – which sounds like delegates from groups of employees – and a fifth chosen by the other four appointed/elected members (or, failing that, appointed by the City Council).

Those members would serve 2-year terms and be able to serve more than one term, if so chosen. Former city employees are eligible to serve if they have been separated from the city for more than 7 years. The positions are unpaid, although councils might set a budget that would reimburse expenses. The City Clerk would designate the board’s secretary, keep records and enforce state open meetings laws.

Why some like it

Scott Mullins, president of the Professional Firefighters and Paramedics of North Carolina supports HB 470 during a House Rules Committee meeting. (WGHP)

But it’s what the board would do that causes controversy. Some feel that the board would have a role in hiring and firing and promotions and other functions that go beyond the process of considering whether a decision made by the city manager or department head was appropriate.

The Professional Firefighters of Greensboro, a union representing first responders in Greensboro – although in North Carolina unions can’t participate in collective bargaining – is in full support of the concept because, it says on its website, the board would “ensure equal application of policy and guard against discrimination, protect due process and promote efficiency and transparency.”

Scott Mullins, president of the Professional Firefighters and Paramedics of North Carolina, said his group supports the bill because it would provide “due process” in transfers, promotions and pay issues.

“The bill does not include hiring,” he said during public comments during the Rules Committee hearing. He said that the bill allows managers to “terminate and suspend if they follow their own processes.”

Brandon McGaha, a lobbyist for the Southern Police Benevolent Association, also supported the bill, citing its use for years in the city of Asheville. “This takes politics out of it,” he said. “Officers see other people getting due process. … They need to have due process.”

Affects hiring, firing

Winston-Salem City Council member Robert Clark speaks and City Attorney Angela Carmon listens. (WGHP)

But Robert Clark, who described himself  as a senior member of Winston-Salem City Council, serving the West Ward and the only Republican on the council, said the council is against the bill because city employees would be “no longer in charge of hiring.”

Winston-Salem Police Chief William Penn Jr. said he “respects the spirit of the bill and believes both sides can come together for a better product.” He cited several changes in process he had made since behind hired in January and said he was against the bill.

Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo said that the bill created “unfair burden” and allowed “personal politics to creep into personnel actions and even daily operations. As written, it overrules professional leadership,” he said.

Winston-Salem Fire Chief Trey Mayo: Vote no on the bill. (WGHP)

Winston-Salem City Attorney Angela Carmon said that “the bill does in fact affect hiring and promotions.”

She cited criteria specified on Page 7, paragraphs 15-20 of the bill and said, “This board would have the opportunity to overturn a firing decision by the city manager.”

She offered the example of a member of the police force who might be fired for using excessive force and then could appeal to the board. “The board could reinstate that employee, and that employee could commit another use of excessive force. Vote no.”

Jim Robinson, fire chief of Greensboro, thanked Hardister and Greensboro for their efforts. He said there was “little or no input from the City Council or city manager’s offer. I am available to work on an amendment.”

Greensboro council opposed

Based on two messages shared by Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro), whose district represents a central chunk of the city, HB 470s appearance on the calendar has caught some by surprise.

Greensboro City Council member Marikay Abuzuaiter
Greensboro City Council District 5 member Tammi Thurm

“The discussion about HB 470 came up in our work session several months ago, and the majority of council asked that it NOT be put on our legislative agenda as we would not be supporting it,” Marikay Abuzuaiter, a Democratic at-large member of the Greensboro City Council, said in an email. “The way it is currently being presented it takes away the appeals processes we currently have, employees who have committed egregious acts would still be allowed to retain their positions until the Civil Service Board met and it adds an inordinate amount of work for our City Clerk.  

“There are no term limits listed, as all of our other Boards and Commissions, and Council appointments are more than likely going to be political appointments.  I have had several discussions with those who want this bill but I and the majority of council are opposed to it.

“We were unaware until late last night that it was going to committee today.”

Tammi Thurm, Democrat who represents council District 5, wrote an email to Harrison, Clemmons, Hardister, Quick, Rep. John Faircloth (R-High Point) and Rep. Cecil Brockman (D-High Point) to say she just had heard HB 470 was going to committee and that she opposes the legislation.

“As a council we voted NOT to include this on our legislative agenda because we did not support the Civil Service Board,” Thurm wrote. “I am concerned that the appointments by council will be politicized and that management has no voice on the board.”

She cited the police and fire department’s procedures for peer evaluation and discipline and said she’s not opposed to new processes for others. She also cited an “unfunded mandate” for how the city clerk would handle these additional duties.

“Please do not support HB 470,” she said.

Said Hardister in an email after the bill was pulled: “I concur with the comments from Rep. Zenger. The bill was filed on March 27 and has been available for public input since that time.

“We had the bill calendared today for consideration per standard procedure in the House. We chose to send the bill back to the House Rules Committee while we consider an amendment to the bill. Discussions will continue in the days to come.”