WATCH NOW: Four vie for Greensboro mayor as guns and growth have become top concerns | Local Government

GREENSBORO — Who will lead this city of 300,000 people as it enters a new phase of growth and development and deals with crime and burgeoning housing costs?

Voters will decide from among four mayoral candidates in Tuesday’s primary election. The two candidates with the most votes in the nonpartisan election will advance to the city’s general election on July 26.

The election was delayed from November so 2020 census figures could be used to redistrict City Council seats, which also are on Tuesday’s ballot.

The mayor serves a four-year term and receives an annual salary of $30,932.

The News & Record recently interviewed the candidates — attorney and former District Court Judge Mark Cummings, District 3 Councilman Justin Outling, commercial designer Eric Robert and current Mayor Nancy Vaughan — about their plans if elected mayor.

Here’s what they had to say.

Mark Cummings

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Cummings, 40, is a divorced father of 6-year-old twin girls, has twice run for office, successfully winning a Guilford County District Court seat in 2016.

Cummings served in the position until March 2019, when then-N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley suspended him amid reports of misconduct. In a consent order, Cummings agreed to resign his District Court seat in late 2019 and never run for judicial office again.

Cummings denies the allegations and said he was targeted because “he works on behalf of the people … without favor to any particular group, I didn’t care what your race or socioeconomic background is.”

Cummings also ran for Guilford County Superior Court judge in 2018, but lost in the November general election that year.

Cummings said he would cut crime by 30% in his first two years in office by partnering with community activists.

“Community activists know where the problem spots are. They should be the first lines of defense for those communities in partnership with law enforcement,” Cummings said.

He proposes creating “safety zones” in high crime areas. “Instead of tearing down all of these houses that are on the city’s list, we can renovate a house in each problem area that will serve as a safety zone for that community,” he said.

Community members could drop by the house and share information about criminal activity with an officer there, Cummings said. He explained that keeping an officer there continuously would cut down on police response time.

Criminals will recognize the safe zone as a threat to their activities, Cummings said. “They don’t know which citizens … are giving the information about what is happening in real time.

Cummings also wants to see a police cold-case division and would incorporate grief counselors to help victims’ families cope with the time it takes to solve old cases.

Cummings said the city needs to build partnerships, similar to Habitat for Humanity, to offer more affordable housing and allow people to transition from renting to owning.

“Ownership doesn’t just have to be houses,” he said. “Ownership can be condos or townhomes. So this affordable housing can be transitioned from rent-based to ownership.”

The city could pay for this using the housing bonds it has previously passed as well as money it already collects from taxes.

“It’s making sure we’re spending the resources that we already have,” he said. “Affordable housing should not be one of those things used to stigmatize and divide communities. It’s not a handout. … It is affirming what we mean by life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Well, you can’t pursue happiness when you’re worried about a roof over your head, or how are you going to have heat, especially when you have children.”

Cummings said the city has failed to plan for growth and should have a 10-year plan. “If there is a plan, but no one knows about it, do you really have a plan?” he asked.

The city does have a 40-year comprehensive growth plan called GSO2040.

“We can build an economic corridor from (U.S) 29 all the way to the (Interstate) 85 where there is investment in residential areas,” Cummings said. “We see all too often that these areas are really reserved for industrialized manufacturing” and that brings pollution issues for nearby residents.

He said he’d like to see more hybrid retail-residential areas, similar to the Waverly development in south Charlotte. “Encouraging more of those retail-residential hybrids that will allow people to live and play in the same area — that keeps dollars in that community,” he said.

Cummings also said east Greensboro has not gotten the resources it deserves from the city, allowing crime to foster and creating inequality and economic immobility.

He wants the city to adopt a “parity doctrine” to invest equally between the east and west sides of the city.

“(East Greensboro) is where we need to focus our attention, not to the exclusion of west Greensboro but because we want to improve the whole of Greensboro,” he said.

Justin Outling

Outling, 39, is married with a son, 10, and daughter, 9. He is a law partner at Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard and currently represents District 3 on the City Council. He was appointed to the seat in June 2015 and later twice won reelection to the seat.

As mayor, Outling said he would have regular work sessions with the police department and community members to “help identify the causes of crime, not just the locations, analyze those believed causes and develop specific action plans” with tracking and accountability.

“The year 2020 was the second consecutive year of a record shattering number of homicides,” he said. “There were two work sessions on violent crime. One at the beginning of the year, before the violent crime largely occurred, and one at the end of the year, after the violent crime largely occurred. That’s not good enough.”

He also wants the city to offer guaranteed summer jobs for youths living in areas where they are more likely to be involved in crime. This differs from the 500 summer jobs program the city is promoting, which is open to all youths in Guilford County and is largely provided by private industry.

Outling suggested taking $5 million from the city’s $60 million in American Rescue Plan funding to start an endowment to guarantee these targeted summer jobs in the future.

He also said the city needs to pay a competitive rate to attract and retain police officers and ensure they have the proper equipment needed.

Outling said the city should adopt an ordinance requiring landlords with multiple rentals to accept security deposit insurance in lieu of the full deposit amount.

Under this arrangement tenants pay a minimal monthly premium to a third party on what is essentially a security bond. That company then guarantees payment to the landlord for damages or missed rent up to the bond amount. While the premiums are not refunded, it does allow the renter to move in for less money.

“It’s a really good way to address affordability right now,” he said. “It doesn’t require additional city funding, so we can reserve those funds for building or incentivizing more housing.”

Outling, a former chairman of the Minimum Housing Standards Commission, said the city also should rely more on an existing program where it makes repairs directly to substandard housing. The city then puts a first-priority lien on the property, he said. The city also can have the landlord agree to keep rents the same or nearly the same until
the cost of city repairs is paid back, Outling said.

He also wants the city’s down payment assistance program limited to people who earn 30% or less of the city’s average median income. Currently, it’s open to those earning more than 100% of the area median income.

“The city should be focusing its resources more for those who are … dealing with affordability issues that are really, really dire, Outling said.

Outling said better transportation and job training options are needed to capitalize on the city’s latest economic successes — the Toyota electric car battery factory at the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite and Boom Supersonic’s manufacturing plant at Piedmont Triad International Airport.

“Those jobs are just as likely to be employers for (people) in Randolph County, Forsyth County and elsewhere — as they are for Greensboro,” he said. “Without better transportation, without better jobs training, we’re going to have doughnut shape prosperity in Greensboro.”.

He also said the city needs to preserve and protect its trees and architecture, so that Greensboro doesn’t lose its distinct identity.

As for the inner city, Outling said it needs to use land more wisely. “We have a lot of surface parking lots downtown,” he said. That land should be devoted to higher-density uses that include residential dwellings.

In the outlying areas, Outling said growth should be more dense around thoroughfares and less dense farther out.

Eric Robert

Robert (pronounced Row-bear), 57, is making his first bid for office. A partner and commercial designer at QUB Studios, Robert is married to his second wife and has a son, 32.

A native of France, he immigrated to the United States from Gabon in 1983 and moved to Greensboro three years later. Robert has been involved in downtown revitalization projects and renovated the abandoned Daily Bread Corn Meal Co. building on South Elm Street.

He has twice sued the city. In a 2015 lawsuit, he sued claiming he should have received part of $6.6 million in federal grant money intended to clean up and revitalize the South Elm Street/Gate City Boulevard area. Robert later dropped the lawsuit. In April, he filed an ongoing lawsuit to compel the city to promptly turn over records, including those regarding gun shows at the Greensboro Coliseum.

“Talking about gun violence, getting rid of guns — it’s not necessarily going to make a big difference because … gun violence doesn’t start with the gun,” Robert said. “It starts with words and those words escalate.”

He said he would bring in different players to discuss how to get at the root causes of crime. That includes criminologists, community leaders and figures who are respected in the community.

“It is very important to look at the problem in a different way and involving different players,” he said.

Robert also favors decriminalizing “a lot of the little things,” such as marijuana. He said the city attorney could find “creative ways” to aid in this decriminalization within the city and that it can lobby the General Assembly to decriminalize marijuana altogether.

Robert called the idea of “defunding” the police silly, but said reformation is needed within the police and other city departments.

“We need to reform the entire City Hall … reform the entities that protect and at first can hide (when city employees act wrongly),” he said. “You need to retrain. You need to give them a new culture.”

Robert said the city’s zoning laws are inflexible and antiquated.

“The zoning department … we are a two-trick pony,” he said. “We do single family and we do multifamily.”

Robert said accessory dwellings need to be allowed on developed lots, such as micro units or in-law suites. “The family unit is today and not what it was 50 years ago.”

He also would like all of the city’s factories and buildings slated for demolition to be evaluated to see if they’re suitable for affordable housing.

He used the old Women’s Hospital as an example. “That particular building was already set up to have micro units, to have studio apartments. It had all the electrical. It had all of the individual plumbing. It had a cafeteria. It had a laundry facility.

“We completely missed a tremendous opportunity.”

And the city needs to think in terms of neighborhoods, not just individual housing, Robert said. “If we can do affordable housing (and) make it really attractive, we’re going to start attracting a lot of different individuals, a lot of different affluence to it, and that creates a true community.”

“Not all growth is good growth,” Robert said. “Growth for the sake of growth to be able to announce that ‘hey, we created more jobs, so elect me again’ … is not really responsible.”

He said the city has to ensure it doesn’t lose what makes it unique.

“Right now, we are being engineered by some of the local officials and some of the nonprofits to become a gigantic Applebee’s,” he said. “We are being devoid of flavor because everything is done by committee and it’s always the same 25 incestuous players,” Robert said.

Growth puts pressure on infrastructure like roads and transportation and resources like water, he explained.

He said the city needs to ask itself a series of questions when considering a particular development: “Is it good for Greensboro? Is it great for the citizen? Is it going to help us evolve? Is it going to move us in the right direction?

“I think growth is great, but we have to make sure that it is controlled growth and that it is responsible growth. If we don’t handle this growth well, it’s going to further divide us and … further enhance human inequalities in the disparity we already have.”

He also would like to see an app developed for the city that would allow residents to vote on whether a proposal is a good idea or not.

Nancy Vaughan

Vaughan, 61, is seeking her fourth term as mayor and was first elected to the position in 2013. She also served four terms as a councilwoman. A real estate broker with Allen Tate Realtors, Vaughan is divorced with two sons and a daughter.

Vaughan said community outreach and listening are crucial to getting to the core causes of crime and she likes what the police department is doing. “(Officers) are going deeper into neighborhoods, kind of going back to old-fashioned neighborhood policing,” Vaughan said.

However, “we need to be competitive when it comes to salary and benefits” to attract and retain police officers, she added.

Vaughan said she was proactive in pushing for ways to help officers, such as fighting to allow them to take their vehicles home.

She also said the city is pushing to get House Bill 303 passed, which would allow the hiring of civilian traffic investigators to handle accidents without injuries.

“(Police Chief Brian James) estimates that it will give back 17,000 man hours,” Vaughan said. “We can redeploy those police officers who are normally just responding to fender-benders to allow them to respond to a more critical need or to spend more time in the community.”

Vaughan was an early supporter of the department’s Behavioral Health Response Team, where certified clinicians accompany officers to calls where mental health is an issue.

Vaughan also said she brought the “Take Me Home” program to the department, where people who have special needs can voluntarily be included in a confidential database giving officers helpful information if they interact with those registered. Families of people with cognitive issues, drug or alcohol addiction, autism or who are hearing impaired can register.

“If you have somebody in your home who is deaf and the police come, they may not be able to respond to commands because they don’t hear,” she said. It’s good to let (officers) know that in advance.”

Vaughan would like the city to adopt the Ceasefire Strategy that’s used in Oakland, Calif. It aims to reduce gang/group-related homicides and shootings by communicating directly with individuals and offering alternatives, resources and mentoring. It partners with neighborhood and faith leaders in bolstering community support. It also targets repeat violent offenders.

Vaughan also supports the city’s summer youth job program and says it can help deter crime while providing mentorship to teens and open them up to potential careers.

Vaughan said the city needs to implement the 10-year housing plan from October 2020, which could be funded by the $30 million affordable housing bond on the July referendum.

“It … especially focuses on people making less than 60% of the area median income,” Vaughan said.

It also would help people who have no money for emergency home repairs. “Often a homeowner doesn’t have that rainy day fund,” she said, so major repairs like a leaky roof don’t happen and the home falls into disrepair.

Vaughan said the city has done a good job of tracking its 2016 housing bond issue, which subsidized building affordable housing or rehabilitating existing housing. “There’s long term auditing to make sure that our investment was spent the way that it was intended to, to make sure that those stay at an affordable rate,” she said.

She said the city’s lack of housing is pushing some residents beyond what they can afford. “They’re just getting priced out,” she said. “We have to find a way to continue to work with landlords … and maybe subsidize some of those units.”

If the housing bond referendum doesn’t pass in July, she said the city could use property taxes instead. “I think we have an obligation to make sure that people can afford to live in a decent home,” she said.

“Our greatest growth will be to the east because that’s where we haven’t had growth in a long time,” Vaughan said. “That is why I want to make sure that we have a good water and sewer policy — so builders know where to expect they can build with water and sewer and where they have to build with water and septic.”

She said some of the hardest rezonings involve infill housing in existing neighborhoods.

“These infill really are challenging, but most of the builders are looking at the neighborhood and trying to figure out how they can incorporate themselves into the neighborhoods, not to stick out, but to be a complement to it to possibly bring amenities,” she said.

Contact Kenwyn Caranna at 336-373-7082 and follow @kcaranna on Twitter.