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?
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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.”
A week later, on Oct. 3, the City Council released its own statement. Signed by all members, it took a different tone.
“We support our Police Chief and the men and women of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, including our Chief’s continued efforts to enhance trust and accountability within the Department and within the community,” the council members said. “We will also continue to review and implement the recommendations from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.”
Roberts has said she supports CMPD Chief Kerr Putney.
Roberts, through a spokesperson, declined to comment for this story.
Recently, council members and Roberts have become more closely aligned, at least publicly. Last week, council members unanimously approved a response to the shooting and protests.
Their plan calls for building more affordable housing, investing in a job-training program and hiring the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., to conduct a monthslong review of CMPD. Roberts was not closely involved in that plan, but she said she supported the council’s action.
Former City Council member Andy Dulin, a Republican, said he questions whether Roberts said the right thing after the Scott shooting, especially in criticizing the city for a lack of transparency.
But Dulin said that’s her right.
“She won,” he said, referring to Roberts’ victories last year in three elections – the Democratic primary, a primary runoff and a general election.
“She can say what she wants,” Dulin said. “But when Roberts comes out and says we need more transparency, I think a majority of her council members, if not all, are saying, ‘What do you mean? She's not speaking for me.’”
A longtime issue
Former City Manager Curt Walton, who worked alongside five mayors, said the question of who speaks for the city has been around for a long time.
“But it’s been more theoretical or philosophical until now,” Walton said. “I think Harvey (Gantt) and Richard (Vinroot) were both really, really good about the mayor speaking for the council, and the mayor speaking towards city positions.”
Walton said Myrick, mayor from 1987 to 1991, was one of the first to have her own voice that was apart from council members.
“She stood beside Independence Boulevard and talked about funding for transportation in a way that was out of depth from where the council was,” he said.
McCrory, mayor for 14 years, was followed by Democrat Anthony Foxx, who served from 2009 to 2013.
Both men were ambitious. Both wanted to have their own voice.
Walton said both struggled to define their role and how much they should deviate from council. McCrory did so more often, because he was usually matched with a Democratic council.
“This issue came up, but it was more philosophical. How much voice do I have? He didn’t concede. He maintained his prerogative to speak out,” Walton said.
But he added that under Roberts, the city is dealing with issues much bigger than mass transit or whether to build an uptown arena.
“The stakes are higher,” Walton said. “The intensity of the issue is higher.”