At the Sept. 9 meeting of the City of Greensboro’s Minimum Housing Standards Commission, commissioners stated they knew nothing of the city’s controversial settlement with the Agapion family until YES! Weekly broke the story.
Two hours and 15 minutes into the meeting, departing commissioner Andrew J. Young, whose term ended that week, asked Chair Peter Isakoff and Vice-Chair Quentin Brown about YES! Weekly’s article. As reported, the city announced in 2019 that it was suing the Agapion family for $682,000 in unpaid fines. But on March 4 of this year, the city quietly accepted $200,000, or 29 percent of the amount it originally sought to recoup, with no announcement that the case had been settled.
“I read that the city settled for 200,000 bucks because of misplaced evidence,” said Young. “Why wasn’t the public informed of the settlement way back in March. Specific to the Commission, we play a pretty important part in ensuring safe housing for all Greensboro residents. So, why weren’t we informed?”
“I’ll tell you, Mr. Young,” replied Isakoff, “I found out the same way you did, through the News & Record.”
Isakoff’s attribution was in error. The News and Record covered the 2019 announcement of the lawsuit but has not reported on the settlement.
“I’m not aware the commission was contacted in any way about that settlement,” continued Isakoff. “My only contact with the Agapion family and their businesses has been through hearings, where we’ve had them before us. I think what you’re getting at is some sort of suggestion or request to city council.”
Young replied that he was concerned about how the case impacted the ability of the Minimum Housing Standards Commission to do its appointed duty.
“We’re in a process where we vote to uphold or not uphold inspector’s reports, and we’ve all been told more than once how critical that is. It’s a critical part of ensuring the safety of residents. And we hear cases like the Agapions, in a quasi-judicial setting. So that is a really high standard, as we’ve all been told. We even swear an oath upon accepting appointment from City Council to uphold the laws and faithfully carry out our duties and so on and so on. So, that’s a pretty high standard. But should we be assured that this process works if the city is basically going to go ahead and take that information — the stuff that inspectors have put together, the reports that we’ve upheld, that neighborhood development has done, and they basically, for reasons that are not really super clear, but $680,000 in fines ends up being 200,000 bucks. I think our commission needs to know if the process works, if this is a good process, if this is how we are going to ensure people are more safe.”
Isakoff replied that he had not received any communication from the Greensboro City Council about the case. “I’ve just been reading the news like you have.”
Young asked whether the $200,000 was paid to the General Fund or Neighborhood Development.
Isakoff replied that it was his understanding that all civil penalties go to the General Fund.
“I’m not going to speak to the legal case. That is the city attorney’s place, to talk about any settlement,” said Troy Powell, manager of the Community Improvement Division of Neighborhood Development.
“However,” continued Powell, “when civil penalties are collected, collections will process them against any reduction. So, in your Agapion case, they [the Agapions] are eligible for deductions. Each of those apartments [repairs] were allowed to be deducted, all the way down to $500, for proof with receipt of work done to correct violations in the dwelling. So, a reduction decision letter was made in the case. So, whenever a settlement occurs, the collections division advise they applied the settlement towards each of the bills in that way. I assure you, it did not come back to my budget.”
Young said that he appreciated Powell’s answer, and asked if “we’re going to see the Agapions coming before us and asking for everything to be reduced down to $500?”
Powell said that, no, the Agapions could not appeal to reduce the settlement. He then asked for comment from legal counsel Tony Baker.
“There were some credits for repairs that had been done by the Agapions,” said Baker. “It was evidence that was considered part of the lawsuit. City Council considered a number of factors and decided to settle.”
Young asked if there were any procedural problems that might have resulted either in the low settlement or the lack of any announcement.
“Not that involved the [Minimum Housing Standards] Commission,” said Baker. “I can’t go into details of what was discussed [by City Council] in closed session.”
Young expressed anger that the commission had not been informed of this development in March.
“Where the heck is the accountability? It’s only in September that we’re finding out through the news media. We know who pays, that’s the thing that really concerns me. When struggling homeowners come before us, many of them Black and people of color, they want to see a fair process. [Now] we hear about the arrival of Afghan refugees. I welcome the refugees, [but] I sure as hell hope they don’t get put in places like Summit Cone. It was an honor to be on this commission, but if I was reappointed, I really don’t know if I would accept.”
Young is not the only person to be told that the City of Greensboro cannot disclose anything about City Council deliberations that led to the decision to settle the case for slightly more than one-fourth of what the City filed suit to recover.
On Aug. 31st, I filed PIRT #16548, requesting minutes and other documents of City Council deliberations in which Council agreed to settle the lawsuit filed against Arco Realty and the Agapion family. On Sep. 15, the request was marked CLOSED WHILE IN PROGRESS by the city’s Legislative Department.
On Sept. 27, the city replied with the following statement from the Legislative Department:
“We are denying access to the closed session minutes pursuant to NCGS 143-318.10(e), which says, ‘When a public body meets in closed session, it shall keep a general account of the closed session so that a person not in attendance would have a reasonable understanding of what transpired. Such accounts may be a written narrative, or video or audio recordings. Such minutes and accounts shall be public records within the meaning of the Public Records Law, G.S. 132-1 et seq.; provided, however, that minutes or an account of a closed session conducted in compliance with G.S. 143-318.11 may be withheld from public inspection so long as public inspection would frustrate the purpose of a closed session.’”