When Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts wrote an op-ed critical of the city’s response in the Keith Lamont Scott shooting, some City Council members were upset.
Their concerns: The mayor released a statement without consulting them. Not only that, the mayor’s statement didn’t reflect their views.
The divide highlighted what’s long been an unanswered question in Charlotte city government, whose leaders have historically tried to avoid conflict.
Is the mayor a spokesperson for the entire city, including the Charlotte City Council? Or does the mayor speak for the mayor alone?
Under the “Old Charlotte Way,” the mayor and council were usually in lockstep. But old Charlotte was a much smaller city – and didn’t face issues such as House Bill 2 and the Scott shooting.
“We didn’t have those kind of fractures if you will,” said Republican Richard Vinroot, mayor from 1991 to 1995. “On occasion we had dramatic events in Charlotte, we all pretty much saw eye to eye with one voice. I do think it’s surprising on something this significant that they wouldn’t be speaking with one voice. I’m surprised and a little disappointed.”
Vinroot, who served with a Democratic council during his first term, said council members felt like friends.
“It was a good thing, but maybe it was just the time in our city that’s a bygone era,” he said.
In Charlotte’s form of government, the mayor and council hire a professional manager who is responsible for running the city’s daily operations. The mayor rarely votes on issues, though the mayor does have a veto. That veto, by its definition, is designed to separate the mayor from the City Council. It’s impossible to have consensus when a veto is used.
The job is partly symbolic. And it’s partly a bully pulpit to push the city’s agenda, or at least the majority of City Council’s views.
An example was Pat McCrory leading on building the Lynx Blue Line and Anthony Foxx rallying support for the streetcar. And most recently, Roberts led when she said the council would not compromise on repealing its nondiscrimination ordinance.
In all of those cases, the mayors had a majority, or near majority, of council members behind them.
Split with council
In the days after the shooting, Roberts received scorn from local protesters and national media for supporting the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s decision not to release body- and dash-camera footage of the shooting.
On Sept. 24, four days after the shooting, the city released the footage. Two days later, Roberts wrote an op-ed: “The lack of transparency and communication about the timing of the investigation and release of video footage was not acceptable, and we must remedy that immediately.”
She added: “Our city must be more open, honest, and transparent in investigating police shootings if we are to restore trust.”