RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – An amended version of House Bill 470 – the local bill that sought to add Civil Service Boards to the cities of Greensboro and Winston-Salem – passed the North Carolina House in voice votes after being added to the agenda at the last minute on Wednesday afternoon.

But the bill, placed on the calendar after the House reconvened at 3:30 p.m., also was approved despite a request from Rep. Amber Baker (D-Winston-Salem) that her city be removed from the bill for further study.

Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Greensboro) presents her compromise amendment during Wednesday’s House meeting. (WGHP)

HB 470, a local bill that would change city charters and create 5-person appointed boards that critics suggest could usurp the authority of city managers and city councils, had received a favorable report in the House Rules Committee on Tuesday afternoon, sending it to the floor.

But before and during that committee hearing there was significant pushback from city, police and fire officials in the two cities. That led to Baker’s amendment and another from Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Greensboro) that was adopted Wednesday.

Clemmons’ addition changes the appointed members of the boards to one by the City Council and one by “mutual agreement of the Chief of Police and Fire Chief” and would specify the board would not be authorized “to make any hiring decisions.” The deputy and assistant chiefs of police and fire chief would be specified as exempt from appointment to the board.

Rep. Amber Baker’s bid to have Winston-Salem withdrawn was defeated in a voice vote. (WGHP)

Baker, whose District 72 is in the city of Winston-Salem, proposed to remove Winston-Salem and make the bill the “Greensboro Civil Service Board.”

“Usually with local bills we have consensus among the local delegation,” she said. “But not on this bill. … Our needs for our city are slightly different from what Greensboro needs.”

State Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Whitsett) – who along with Rep. Jeff Zenger (R-Lewisville) and Rep. Kyle Hall (R-King) sponsored the bill even though their districts represent only slivers of the cities – said Wednesday in presenting the bill that sponsors supported Clemmons’ amendment but recommended against Baker’s.

Compromising on issues

Five of seven public speakers – all leaders of the two cities – strongly proclaimed the opposition to the bill. Members of the Greensboro City Council had sent emails to question why the bill was being considered.

“We were completely unaware of any serious opposition until literally 5 minutes before the first committee meeting,” Zenger told WGHP on Tuesday.

Clemmons, whose District 57 represents the northern extremes of the Greensboro, said her amendment “compromises some concerns from leadership of police and firefighters and of the Greensboro City Council.”

The bill, which advances to the Senate but won’t be subject to a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper, calls for a Civil Service Board that would be an extension and overlay of both the elected city councils and the hired city managers to establish processes for reviewing issues brought before it.”

Following Clemmons’ amendment, these boards’ five members would consist of one appointed by the City Council, one by police and fire leadership, two elected by the “classified service of the city” – or all groups of nonmanagers – and a person chosen by the other four.

The controversy

But it’s what the board would do that causes controversy. Clemmons suggests the bill was encouraged by the Professional Firefighters and Paramedics of North Carolina and the Southern Police Benevolent Association, unions of rank-and-file first responders and law enforcement.

Scott Mullins, president of the firefighters, said in Tuesday’s hearing that his group supports the bill because it would provide “due process” in transfers, promotions and pay issues but “does not include hiring.”

Brandon McGaha, a lobbyist for the Southern Police Benevolent Association, said the bill “takes politics out of it” and provides “due process” for police officers.

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

The fire chiefs of Greensboro and Winston-Salem, the city attorney and police chief of Winston Salem and the only Republican on the Winston-Salem City Council all spoke in the hearing against the bill on Tuesday.

The fire chiefs of Greensboro and Winston-Salem, the city attorney and police chief of Winston Salem and the only Republican on the Winston-Salem City Council all spoke in the hearing against the bill on Tuesday.

Robert Clark, who described himself  as a senior member of Winston-Salem City Council, said this would mean city employees would be “no longer in charge of hiring.”

Winston-Salem City Attorney Angela Carmon said that the bill “would have the opportunity to overturn a firing decision by the city manager.”

Members of the Greensboro City Council had sent emails to the city’s legislative delegation recommending no votes on the bill and suggesting they already had expressed their opposition.

“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 the email. Greensboro City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba did not respond immediately to an email seeking comment about the bill.

Winston-Salem’s concerns

But the delegation from Winston-Salem heard the message quite clearly. Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Winston-Salem), one of the more powerful Republicans in the House, said he was not the primary or cosponsor of the bill and had not seen it come through one of his committees but that he has “awareness and some knowledge of the bill.

“I now know the two cities are opposed to the bill,” he said earlier Wednesday. “I am not sure how it originated. I thought but do not know that the cities asked for it originally, but upon closer review that has changed.”

Rep. Kanika Brown (D-Winston-Salem) (NCGA)
State Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Winston-Salem)

Rep. Kanika Brown (D-Winston-Salem), whose District 71 is in the middle of the city, said she hadn’t been involved in the bill either.

“I’m concerned that the bill would weaken the City Council and City Manager’s authority over personnel policies, and I’m aware that there’s very little appetite for the bill among members of City government,” Brown said.

“I’m glad to hear that the City’s HR Department is working to improve openness and accountability with employee concerns, and that the Fire and Police Departments are similarly working on improving transparency in their disciplinary review processes.”

There are five cities in the state – Charlotte and Asheville among them – that have similar review boards, and Zenger said two more municipalities would be added to the bill. Speculation was that Durham would be one.

No other city was mentioned, and none of the four Democrats who represent Durham – Vernetta Alston, Zach Hawkins, B. Ray Jeffers and Marcia Morey – responded immediately to questions emailed by WGHP.

The original bill