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Panel studies city council’s structure; some fear loss of black representation

Some people attending the first of a series of public meetings on how the Winston-Salem City Council is elected said Tuesday that they fear any change could hurt black representation.

About 25 people turned out for an information session at Carver High School. Two more sessions are scheduled for this week. Members of the Local Governance Study Commission hope to learn through the meetings how people feel about such concepts as partisan vs. nonpartisan contests and whether the city council should have some at-large members.

Former school board member Vic Johnson, one of those attending the Tuesday session, told a reporter that more at-large seats could be a setback for the black community.

In the 1940s, Johnson said, many streets in black neighborhoods were unpaved.

“We didn’t get cement on the streets until we got black representation,” he said. “We need to be where the money is so we can get some of it. I’m trying to figure out what is wrong with the way it is.”

The study commission was the outcome of a spat between city of Winston-Salem officials and state Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, last spring when Lambeth introduced a bill that would have divided the city into five wards and created three at-large council seats.

Some council members reacted with anger when the plan put forward by Lambeth — drafted by legislative staff without regard to demographics, Lambeth said — had the effect of putting three black Democratic council members into one ward.

Currently, each of the eight city council members represents a ward, and only residents of the ward vote for their representative. Everyone gets to cast a ballot for mayor, but the mayor has no vote except in a tie on the council.

The current council has four black members and four white ones. Politically, the board is 7-1 Democratic.

The information sessions are not held in a public-hearing format. Rather, attendees are shown a video explaining the different election methods, then get to look at displays explaining the methods in more detail. City officials are there to answer questions and hand out survey forms for people to fill out.

The ward- or district-only system is not the only way to organize a council, those at Tuesday’s session were told. Councils can include a mix of at-large and district representatives, and they can be all elected at the same time or serve staggered terms.

Term lengths can be two or four years, and mayors can be allowed to vote on all matters or only to break a tie.

The study group has heard from government policy wonks and learned how cities across North Carolina elect their council by a wide variety of methods. Many do have some at-large members.

“It is a learning process,” said David Branch, who co-chairs the study panel. “We thought we would learn from the community what they want.”

Morticia “Tee-Tee” Parmon, running for election to the Northeast Ward council seat being vacated by Vivian Burke, came to the meeting saying the city doesn’t “have to reinvent the wheel.”

More at-large representation “dilutes the voice of the African American community,” she said, adding that she thinks the push to look at other election methods may come from people uncomfortable with the number of black council members.

Deborah Daniels said after hearing the presentation Tuesday that at-large representation would make council representation “more generic” since a resident would not have a single council member representing them.

Sheila Sullivan said she heard about the meeting at church and decided to come out and learn.

“It will take more digesting,” she said, declining to state a preference among the election methods.

The commission is likely to wrap up its work this spring, when it could possibly make some sort of recommendation, Branch said.

Phil Carter, a candidate for the council’s East Ward seat, said wards should be left as is but suggested term limits — an option not on the survey form, though it does have a catch-all section for other comments

James Kennedy gave the city high marks for holding the sessions.

“They are doing a good job to provide the citizens with what we need to decide whether they should make a change,” he said.

Equity policy wins approval from Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education

In a unanimous vote, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education approved an equity policy Tuesday for the local school system.

Before the vote, Effie McMillian, the school system’s new director of equity, said, “If approved, the equity policy will help guide the district’s work to improve educational outcomes for our students.”

Equity involves raising achievement for all students, and narrowing gaps and eliminating racial and cultural disparities between the lowest and highest performing student groups.

Malishai Woodbury, the chairwoman of the school board, said that creating the policy “was not an individual, inspired or implemented effort. This has been a whole community, whole board effort.”

Woodbury said it wasn’t perfect but “as we move forward with this policy, I think that it will grow into one of the models of our state. … This is about our children and making sure that we hold everyone accountable for all children.”

The policy includes a purpose, a definition of equity, five pillars of equity and their definitions, and information about the new Office of Equity as well as establishing an Equity Advisory Council in the future.

These are the five pillars: school policy and organization/administration; school learning environments; academic placement, tracking and assessment; professional learning; and standards and curriculum development.

According to the policy, the school board “believes that a solid education for every child is the key to future economic growth, family development, civic engagement and global participation. The board is also committed to eliminating student achievement predictability based on social and cultural factors, including race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, language proficiency, and disability, and to support staff throughout the district.”

The policy defines equity in part as “a commitment to educational equity involves the removal of institutional barriers so that all students, regardless of their race, socio-economic class, language proficiency, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or ethnic background, can benefit from all aspects of the learning environment.”

Not everyone was happy with the equity policy, known as Policy 1100-Equity.

Nathan Parrish spoke during the public session on behalf of the Coalition for Equity in Public Education, a local advocacy group, saying that the coalition opposed the equity policy in its current form.

“We believe Policy 1100 fails to offer the details and specificity needed to ensure equitable and just outcomes,” Parrish said.

He said using words such as “solid” and “seeks and “significant opportunities” are “vague and slippery.”

“Words matter because words establish expectations and words provide the basis for plans, action and implementation and evaluation,” Parrish said.

Salem Gardens apartments sold; new owners say improvements planned

The apartment buying spree in Forsyth County continued this week with the purchase of the Salem Gardens complex in Winston-Salem for $7.3 million.

The buyer of the 150-unit complex at 7 Salem Gardens Road is Salem Gardens MF I LLC, an affiliate of Infinity Capital Partners of Atlanta, according to a Forsyth County Register of Deeds filing Tuesday.

Infinity Capital Partners is a privately owned fund of hedge funds managers serving high-net worth individuals, family offices, wealth management firms and institutional investors.

The apartments will remain a Section 8 property with a rental assistance contract with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, according to Greg Jones, chief investment officer with Infiniti RE Impact LLC.

The seller is Ashton Salem LP of Valdosta, Ga., which had owned the property since February 2005.

The HUD contract with Salem Gardens serves to subsidize rents based on tenant incomes, typically a monthly contribution toward rent equal to 30% of their adjusted income.

Since the property has received funding in part through the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, a certain number of units are set aside for lower income households.

“We’re not going to change who is served,” Jones said, calling Infiniti “a social impact group dedicated to doing good things for the tenants.”

“We’re not going to push out tenants.”

Jones said the owners plan a “material rehabilitation” of the apartments over the next six months that will include new appliances and other amenities, such as a business center, library and additional safety features.

“We want to help change the mindset of our tenants, to give them the resources to help them lead a better life,” Jones said.

At least 37 existing apartment complexes have sold in Forsyth over the past 17 months for a combined $378.2 million. Most have been sold to out-of-state buyers.

The most recent purchases were: Grosvenor Square Apartments, a 145-unit complex at 74 Woodbine St. in Kernersville, was sold for $6.96 million; and Shattalon Trace, a 120-unit complex at 5732 Shattalon Drive in Winston-Salem, was sold for $5.76 million.

The buyers were Gingko Grosvenor LLC and Gingko Shattalon LLC, both listed with an address of 200 S. College St., Suite 200, in Charlotte.

On Dec. 31, the 160-unit The Fiddler’s Creek Apartments complex in Winston-Salem sold for $10.1 million to Fiddler’s Creek Apartment of NC LLC, based in Winston-Salem.

On Dec. 22, the Regency and Johnsborough Court properties off Old Vineyard Road were sold to Lake Hill Investment Group LLC of Greenwich, Conn., for a combined $15.4 million. Regency, based at 3401 Old Vineyard Road, has 134 units, while Johnsborough, at 3629 Old Vineyard Road, has 95 units.

On Dec. 11, the luxury 229-unit West End Station apartment complex near downtown Winston-Salem was sold for Dec. 11 for $52.5 million to an affiliate of EBSCO Income Properties LLC of Alabama.

On Dec. 4, the Arch Cos. affiliates spent a combined $44.06 million on three Winston-Salem apartment complexes it views as viable fixer-uppers, including $15.45 million for the 312-unit Twin City Apartments and $12.67 million for the 228-unit Silas Creek Apartments.

Driving the apartment selling and building trends, according to economists, are millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996.

Mark Vitner, a senior economist for Wells Fargo Securities, said investors “are trying to find what few pockets of value there are left in the apartment market.”

“Prices have been bid up so much in larger markets, such as Charlotte, Raleigh and Nashville, that investors are increasingly looking to markets that have been overlooked and show great potential for growth.

“Winston-Salem and Greensboro are at the top of the list of overlooked markets.”

Man accused in fatal Hanes Mall shooting remains jailed under $500,000 bond

A Winston-Salem man accused of killing Julius Randolph Sampson outside a restaurant at Hanes Mall remains in the Forsyth County Jail two weeks after a Forsyth County judge set his bond at $500,000.

Robert Anthony Granato, 23, is charged with first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Sampson on Aug. 6, 2019. He is also charged with misdemeanor carrying a concealed gun while or after consuming alcohol.

The shooting happened outside BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse at Hanes Mall. Race has been at the center of the discussion about the fatal shooting, with some believing that Sampson was shot because he was black. Winston-Salem police chief Catrina Thompson has said there is no evidence that the shooting was racially motivated. She also has said that both men — Granato is white — used racial epithets.

During a bond hearing on Jan. 16, Granato’s attorney, Paul James, argued that Granato was defending himself when he shot Sampson. Prosecutors argued that Granato hid the gun behind his back just before a confrontation outside the restaurant and said they strongly dispute that the shooting was self-defense.

Judge George Bedsworth of Forsyth District Court set Granato’s bond at $500,000 on the murder charge. His total bond is $503,000. Before the hearing, Granato had been held without bond.

Granato’s next court date in Forsyth District Court is June 25, but prosecutors have indicated that they plan to seek an indictment before that date. An indictment would send the case to Forsyth Superior Court, where either a trial date is set or a plea arrangement is negotiated.