Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts steps down next week after two turbulent years in the job. She sat down with me Thursday to talk about her handling of the Keith Scott protests, HB2 and other issues. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
What are some of the biggest things that didn’t get done that you wish had?
I’d love to see some funding ideas for the next light rail lines, some developers to come up with some innovative ways to use (tax-increment financing). Cities are going to have to rely more on their own devices. So it would have been nice to see some movement there.
It’d have been nice to see someone have a great plan for Eastland. That’s something again that shouldn’t have to be as complicated as it seems to be.
Why has it been?
I think there’s some internal issues.
Internal to what?
Probably in city management. But it’s not just the city. Part of that is bureaucracy, and just timing and change of leadership, city manager leadership, the east side representative. It’s not like I’m blaming anyone, I’m just saying that there’s been some internal challenge. But there’s also been external challenge with the focus being other places because of crises. So we are headed in a good direction, the school is going up there, there’s a lot of attention, there are developers who are interested. It would have been nice to see it happen faster.
As you look back over your two years, can you point to any one thing you would do differently if you had it to do over again?
We certainly have learned a lot and we were not the best prepared for protests. We have learned a lot about immediate outreach, about getting information out faster. We now reach out to the community instantly and get information out faster about police incidents in general.
And one thing I have thought about: I’ve done a great job of being in the community, I go everywhere, I listen, I respond to my constituents. I’ve done a great job marketing our city, I’ve had to do a lot of it with HB2. One thing I could have done, and I’m trying to figure out where I’d fit it in in my time because it’s a 24-7 job, but I could have worked harder on increased communication with my colleagues and explaining my stand on certain things more completely with certain people that misinterpreted things I did, did not hear it from me directly. There’s a lot of gossip third hand.
One example, the committee assignments, which was totally misinterpreted by Ed Driggs and others, who of course are out there as opponents, that’s their role, but it was totally about lifting up District 2. And Carlenia Ivory was so grateful and that district is one of our challenged districts and needed to have that voice on the economic development committee.
So that doesn’t sound like something you wish you had done differently...
I wish I had reached out to council members on it. I reached out to most of them but I did not have a chance to have a full conversation with Ed Driggs ahead of time.
There are other things that I could have had more individual conversations, and again the challenge is trying to figure out where you fit that in. What else gives? Do I do less in the community and more with my colleagues? Do I do less speaking at events in DC and others to help market our city to be that voice of this fast-growing city that people want to hear from? It’s time management, and I think somewhere if I could have fit it in, to have a few more individual conversations to explain to folks better... Maybe if we hadn’t had all the crises we had, I would have had time to do that.
Council members have told us over the years, including ones of your party, that they didn’t feel like they had a very good relationship with you.
I feel that I have a good relationship. What I don’t have is the continued communication. Maybe that’s what they refer to as not having the best relationship.
So what was the impact of that? What’s wrong with not having better relationships there? What was the effect of that either in policy or politics?
Misinterpretation of motives. People kept saying, ‘Oh, she’s just running for higher office.’ I’m not running for higher office; I was focused on the city. People assume things about me because other people they know had done things like that.
I don’t do enough of explaining my motives or explaining my role in a lot of things so people assume things if they don’t know me well. It is helpful in getting things through if people know you better and trust you, and if they don’t, they fill in the blanks with things they’ve seen other people do and I should have worked harder on that.
Another part of the challenge is, very soon two of my colleagues (Vi Lyles and Kenny Smith) started campaigns against me and at that point, it’s very hard to make that bridge. It was actually pretty apparent there was some tension and challenge with those two folks pretty early on.
You mentioned more transparency. You wrote an op-ed for the Observer after the Keith Scott shooting last year. Many people, including the City Council, thought it threw police chief Kerr Putney under the bus for transparency issues that involved you too. Was the op-ed a mistake? Do you stand by it?
That was one of the hardest things I had to do as mayor. It was very hard to publicly say and – look at the wording: ‘We’, I included myself in that – we need to be more transparent. I never mentioned the chief. So again, my opponents came out very quickly because they know there’s a lot of support for our police department, as there should be. I did not throw the chief. I stood up for what I knew would help resolve the lack of trust and help reduce the aggression and bring our community together.
I still wonder if we had said right from the beginning, we’re going to release this video in a week, if the protests would have been less violent.
My editorial didn’t get published until after the protests had subsided, so this whole myth that it made things worse is a myth, again propagated by my opponents.
It was hard to write that but I had worked with colleagues to try to impress upon them the need to say something definitive about releasing it, and I wasn’t getting anywhere.
Were they any other mistakes the city or you made in reacting to the shooting and the protests?
The lines of communication within the city have been improved. There were council members who felt like they didn’t have (information). There were some folks out in districts who said, ‘I didn’t even see anything about x-y-z that happened. I heard it on the news but no one told me internally what happened,’ like around Justin Carr. I got asked (on TV news) about Justin Carr and I had zero information on Justin Carr. We should have had something for me to say.
Your reputation and how people saw your leadership took a hit during the Keith Scott protests, and I’m wondering why you think that was and is it fair?
There are cities around the country when they had a major incident where the mayor lost or decided not to run again. I think we struck a balance (between supporting police and not alienating protesters). If you happen to be the face of the city at that time, you take the bullets. But that’s what you sign up for. You take the blame. And you do the best you can to try to bring the two sides together.
Could you and the City Council have done anything differently to avoid the HB2 debacle? Or do you put that entirely on the legislature?
There was a vote in 2015 before I was mayor where the compromise failed. We knew if we left out the transgender community it wouldn’t pass. We knew that 200 other cities in America had done this. We campaigned on it, we promised we would support it. I keep thinking, what more could we have communicated?
Although they communicated back. Dan Bishop and Pat McCrory made it clear if you do this, we’re going to hammer you.
They didn’t say hammer. The warning that we heard was all about bathrooms. So what we anticipated if there were any backlash ... We didn’t think they would do it. If they did anything, we anticipated they would just not allow local governments to regulate bathrooms.
It totally took on a life of its own. And we have thought about how else could we have stayed true to our campaign promises and not have had the backlash, and I think that is on the state. The legislature could have merely said, you can’t regulate public bathrooms or public facilities. They could have done a number of things that were much more targeted.
How do you think having five new City Council members and six millennials on there will affect the council’s work and city government?
I think there’s going to be a lot of energy, a lot of innovation and a lot of willingness to look at technology to address things differently, like doing zoning more efficiently.
Do you worry about them being so new, having half the council without experience?
No, and the reason is, many of them I have seen – Matt Newton has been involved and worked with council for years on many different issues. Larken Egleston, same thing for years. Dimple Ajmera has had a year on the council. And Tariq (Bokhari) worked with me on the fintech initiative. I don’t think anyone is a greenhorn in that way.
What’s next for you politically?
I have no plans. I have no political plans. I promised my family I’ll wait two months before I say yes to anything. I have offers, I have requests and I’m letting it all sit.
Could you envision ever running for the legislature?
I have learned to never say never in politics and never predict. So I’m not saying. I don’t have any plans.