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Greensboro council hires law firm to fight against SB 36

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GREENSBORO — The city has retained a law firm to lobby the General Assembly on the controversial bill to restructure the City Council.

The firm — Brooks Pierce, with offices in Greensboro, Raleigh and Wilmington — also is helping the city form a legal strategy, should the fight go to court.

At Tuesday night’s council meeting, Councilman Tony Wilkins, who supports much of Senate Bill 36, objected to the council spending $25,000 to lobby on the issue, describing it as “a total waste.”

“I think this could very well be an election issue,” Wilkins said, asking who authorized the contract.

City Attorney Tom Carruthers said he consulted with all council members — including Wilkins, who objected — before executing the contract. He said there was a consensus on the council to move forward with the contract, which did not require a full vote of the council because it is a service contract for less than $30,000.

Carruthers and City Manager Jim Westmoreland signed off on the contract late last month.

Discussion on the issue devolved into a long argument late in the meeting Tuesday night. Most council members defended the contract as necessary.

“We desperately need a lobbyist,” Councilman Mike Barber said during the televised council meeting. “If you need a scapegoat, pan the camera in.”

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Barber said Greensboro, which once had a full-time lobbyist in Raleigh, needs representation there on everything from SB 36 to a recent proposal to change the distribution of sales-tax revenue that could cost the city millions of dollars.

“Twenty-five thousand dollars is a bargain,” Barber said. “If we could pay more and get those knot-heads in Raleigh to make a correct decision, I’d pay it in a heartbeat.”

But the contract with Brooks Pierce is only for SB 36, Wilkins said — a controversial political issue on which he doubts lobbyists will be able to change any minds.

The bill easily sailed through the N.C. Senate and likely will be taken up next week by a committee in the N.C. House. If passed, the bill would reduce the size of council, redraw districts and strip the mayor’s vote in most circumstances.

Carruthers, who took the lead in hiring Brooks Pierce, defended the move in an interview Wednesday. “It was a unique situation in which I thought it was in the best interest of the city for us to retain lobbyists so we could understand from the ground, from the hallways of the House, what the situation was and the best way to address it,” Carruthers said.

Attorney Jim Phillips is providing legal advice to the city under the contract, Carruthers said. Two lobbyists with Brooks Pierce — Elizabeth Biser and Chris McClure — are handling the lobbying work. McClure is a former chairman of the N.C. Republican Party.

The contract with Brooks Pierce says the firm may help the city form a legal challenge

to the constitutionality of SB 36.

Carruthers said the firm has provided valuable advice, and his office is ready to go to court over the issue, if the council decides to do so.

“We have developed a very detailed, good faith belief that what is being done is beyond the authority of the General Assembly,” Carruthers said. “We will be prepared to give advice to council and follow their direction.”

Contact Joe Killian at (336) 373-7023, and follow @JoeKillianNR on Twitter.

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