Politics & Government

Will City Council follow new Charlotte mayor Jennifer Roberts’ lead?

Jennifer Roberts, Charlotte's mayor-elect, will be sworn in on Dec. 7th. Roberts talked about her first day on the job and it'll be a busy one. She was photographed on Thursday Dec. 3, 2015.
Jennifer Roberts, Charlotte's mayor-elect, will be sworn in on Dec. 7th. Roberts talked about her first day on the job and it'll be a busy one. She was photographed on Thursday Dec. 3, 2015. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Jennifer Roberts, who will become Charlotte’s fifth mayor in three years on Monday, wants to improve schools.

She wants the city to pass protections for LGBT residents.

And, she wants to increase the pay of the city’s lowest-paid employees and to ensure male and female city employees are paid the same for the same job.

It’s an ambitious agenda.

But she must coax the City Council to implement it.

Roberts, a Democrat, will have a 9-2 Democratic majority on council. But she will become the first mayor who hasn’t served on the council since Eddie Knox was elected mayor in 1979.

In dealing with council, Roberts must handle egos and differences in styles and vision.

Here are four challenges Roberts will face:

Will the council support her?

After being elected, Roberts heard from most of Charlotte’s recent mayors, including a congratulatory call from Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican.

She did not hear from Democrat Anthony Foxx, now the U.S. transportation secretary. She also hasn’t spoken with Dan Clodfelter, the current mayor whom she defeated in an October run-off election.

“I did say ‘hello’ to him at a council meeting,” Roberts said.

Roberts didn’t attack Clodfelter during the campaign. In fact, she didn’t even criticize him in a veiled way, and rarely if ever mentioned him by name. However, Clodfelter’s campaign criticized her over the 2011 Mecklenburg property revaluation in a mailer.

Clodfelter did not respond to questions about his relationship with Roberts.

Some council members said privately they are surprised the current mayor did not give the incoming mayor advice on how to handle the job.

Roberts and Clodfelter’s lack of even a working relationship is not an outlier. On election night, for instance, few elected Democrats attended her victory party.

One of Roberts’ first moves as mayor is to assign council members to various committees, including naming who will chair them.

Democrat Claire Fallon has headed the council’s public safety committee for the past two years.

Fallon said Roberts told her last week that Roberts was considering removing her from that position – a possible demotion that upset Fallon, who was offered a vice chair.

“I said no, I would not take a vice chair,” Fallon said. “I worked too hard for the city. I’m the only one who ever built a relationship with the police and fire department. That’s her choice. It’s also my choice to say no.”

Council members privately question whether the full council will recognize Roberts as the leader of the city, or whether council members will enact their own agendas.

Roberts said she has spoken with all 11 council members about not only committee assignments, but also her goals and what she wants to accomplish.

It appears Roberts is ready to govern as she campaigned, by taking her message directly to voters.

After being sworn in Monday night, Roberts will have a busy schedule Tuesday, starting with a 6 a.m. ride-along with sanitation workers, and ending with a 7 p.m. speech to the LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

Can she push through LGBT protections?

Roberts’ speech to the LGBT Chamber of Commerce could mention her campaign pledge to expand the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance to include protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people. That would include a controversial provision that would allow transgender residents to use the bathroom of their choice.

In March, the council failed to pass the expanded ordinance, due to concerns about the bathroom provision being removed.

MeckPAC, an LGBT lobbying group, and other organizations worked during the fall campaign to elect at-large council members who support expanding the nondiscrimination ordinance.

In an interview Thursday, Roberts wouldn’t say when she plans to bring the issue before council. MeckPAC has said it would prefer a vote in early 2016.

“That’s in discussion,” Roberts said. “I want to work with council members. We want Charlotte to be welcoming and inclusive, but there’s not a timeline right now.”

Eight of 11 council members have said they will vote for the LGBT ordinance.

A year ago, a majority of council members said they would support the ordinance. But as opposition mounted, support for the ordinance eroded.

It’s also possible that the council’s approval of the ordinance would not end the controversy.

In Houston, the City Council approved a similar ordinance protecting LGBT residents in 2014. Soon after, a lawsuit successfully required the city to either repeal the ordinance or have voters decide its fate.

In November, voters overwhelmingly rejected what’s known as the HERO ordinance, for Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance. While North Carolina law doesn’t provide the same option for a petition to force a public vote, a lawsuit could give opponents a way to challenge the validity of the ordinance.

It’s also possible the General Assembly could pass legislation that would effectively repeal the LGBT protections.

A tax increase?

In 2013, council members approved a 7.25 percent property tax increase to pay for a capital program. In 2015, they approved a smaller 2 percent increase, though the city also reduced the fees charged to residents to pick up their trash.

Could a third property tax increase in four years be on the way?

Police Chief Kerr Putney recently told council members his department needs more officers. He also wants to increase the pay of those already on the force.

Putney has not said how many new officers he would like, though he said CMPD in 2008 asked for 250 new officers and received only 125.

“There is an awareness that public safety is a No. 1 priority,” Roberts said. “We also know we have to balance other interests. I will be waiting to hear what the actual request is.”

During the campaign, Roberts also said she wanted to raise the pay of all city employees to at least $15 an hour. In the most recent budget, City Manager Ron Carlee raised the pay of the 88 lowest-paid city employees to $13 an hour.

And at Roberts’ request, Carlee has started a review of whether there are disparities in how much the city pays women and men.

“We want to make sure they are treating employees fairly,” she said.

Hiring more police and raising the pay of existing officers and low-wage workers would cost millions of dollars per year. That would force higher taxes or cuts to services.

Does the council have an interest in helping schools?

During her campaign, Roberts said she wanted to improve public schools.

That pledge sparked eye-rolling among council members because the city has little direct role with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The city spends about $1 million per year to help nonprofits with after-school programs, but Mecklenburg County, the state and federal government pay CMS’ bills.

Roberts said she wanted to create an “after-school summit” with private businesses, government and non-profits to improve after-care options for parents.

“I will do a lot of convening,” Roberts said.

“Who owns the issue? Who owns the funding? We need to make sure out-of-school time is as productive as in-school time,” she said.

Roberts said she has spoken with council members and assured them she won’t raid the city budget.

“I think that the concern is that there are so many pressures on the budget,” Roberts said.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

Jennifer Roberts’ first day

After being sworn in Monday night, Jennifer Roberts has a full day planned Tuesday as Charlotte’s new mayor.

6 a.m.: Ride-along with sanitation workers

8 a.m.: Ride-along with police in Metro Division

10:30 a.m.: Opening ceremony for First Ward Park

Noon: Small business visits in City Council District 2

3:30 p.m.: After-school program visit, Behailu Academy, 451 E. 36th St.

5:30 p.m.: Domestic violence tree lighting CMPD headquarters, 601 E. Trade St. Charlotte, NC 28202

7 p.m.: LGBT Chamber of Commerce at Sugar Creek Brewery