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March 23, 2008

Roberts defends county action in sheriff appointment

Two candidates for Mecklenburg's Board of County Commissioners addressed the Forum Tuesday, March 18, with the chairman of the board defending the board's actions in selecting a new sheriff.

Chairman Jennifer Roberts, a Democratic at-large incumbent member, was asked why the board had overturned a vote of the people. Roberts said this:

"We saw in that selection process voter fraud. We saw irregularities that were so extreme the Democratic Party itself overturned the process. And I think there were irregularities and fraud at a number of levels. I don't think there was one person or two people who at fault, and I don't care about who was at fault.

"I think we had two months of turmoil and uncertainty in the community. We had deputies leaving the sheriff's office because they were so worried about the uncertainties, and we have a hard time getting deputies as it is...

"We also had, I think, a number of folks who, I'd say, played on some community fears and division to make it even worse.

"What we did was follow the law, we waited to hear the appeal that invalidated the nomination.

"The decision we made was not to wait 30 days to have another process, because we had seen the damage in the community, because we had seen the loss of faith in the Democratic Party organizational structure. And again, I am not talking about individuals; I'm talking about a system....

"We got some very touching e-mails from families of deputies, who talked about worry about losing health benefits, worry about losing jobs. We made a decision not to wait 30 more days. That's the one decision the commission made.

"And it was not because we didn't want to hear from the people. I don' think hearing from 300 people in a county of 900,000 is really hearing from the people. If I had done it based on my e-mail and my phone calls and my letters and my community meetings it was going much more in favor of what we ended up deciding.

"I listened a lot, and I understand people are angry because we have a history of having certain people excluded from having a voice in the community, and I understand that anger. And if people want to look at that decision and make that the one thing that defines me, and defines this commission and defines our choices, that's their right. They can do that. But I think we made a decision in the best interests of the community, best for the community at large. The sheriff's office is very happy with that decision. I think we have terrific professionals in that office.

"I regret the division that has been exacerbated by this whole process, but I firmly believe we followed the law, that we listened well, and that we made the decision based on our judgment of what was best for the entire community.

"Right now we're working on criminal justice, on an overhaul of the system that's looking at our incarceration, and recognizing that there are better ways to work with people who have substance abuse treatment, who have alcoholism, homelessness. We shouldn't lock up someone because they're homeless -- which happens. And we're going to look at overhauling that, with the new sheriff, who firmly believes in rehabilitation and jail diversion and working with mental health issues from the start."

Roberts, who teaches at UNCC, had to leave the Forum before it was over.

Seniors tax break


Asked if seniors could get a property tax break, Roberts said the N.C. homestead act offers a small discount, but further relief "has to happen at the state level.... We can set the tax rate, but we can't carve out sections without the legislature saying OK.... Mecklenburg and Wake are the two counties where properties are going way up fast because of our increased density. The rest of the state, they're losing population in some counties. You have to get the legislators to agree it's a statewide need, which is a challenge."

Added Dan Murrey, a spine surgeon and Democrat who is running for one of three at-large seats, "Our relationship with the state has been challenged at the city level. I think the county has done a bit better with that. But a lot of that depends on who we have as our elected leaders in the state legislature."

Inclusionary zoning


Asked if they would support inclusionary zoning to mix expensive and lower-cost homes in the same neighborhoods, both Roberts and Murrey said they would.

Murray added later:

"That is politically challenging argument, but I think it's one worth making. The reason is this:

"I know from working as a physician that when people become isolated, they become sick. If you're physically or socially isolated, you become withdrawn, you become unhealthy and you die. And the same thing is true of communities. And if we start isolating portions of our society from the rest, so that we don't have to interact, so we don't have to see the problems there and we don't get to learn from the people that are in those situations, then our whole community is going to get sick.

"I'm a surgeon. When we see an infection, we don't give an antibiotic. We go in and drain the abscess, you know. You've got to be aggressive sometimes to deal with bad problems. And sometimes a little pain on the front end pays off with a healthy community on the back end. This is one of those areas where we really need to be asking the question, as I said before, is this bringing us together? Is this increasing our interaction? or is this isolating ourselves from one another, pitting ourselves against one another? And I'm afraid it's done the latter. I think it's time to revisit that."

Juggling time


Asked how he would juggle work with political commitments, Murrey said that during his four-year stint as president of his medical practice, he spent 40%-60% of his time on management while reserving the rest for surgery. He said he expected political obligations to take a similar percentage of his time. With tongue planted firmly in his cheek, he added, "I've been told the county commission pays pretty well, so I'm not too worried about the financial part of it. But maybe I've been wrong about that."

Dropouts and school finance


Reminded that Charlotte-Mecklenburg had the fastest growing dropout rate in the state, Murray said, "I think it's tragic that we have 2,500 kids dropping out. That's a generation we failed." He said solutions would require efforts beyond what government could afford, to end the poverty, health, nurturing and isolation problems that lead to youth dropping out of school.

Asked if he would push for more money for schools, Murrey replied that schools are "the most important public asset" and "the starting point of opportunity for children."

"If kids don't have an adequate school facility, and if kids don't have adequate teachers, what they hear, the message they hear from the community is, 'We don't care about you.'"

But Murrey said it was "hard for me to know what limit I would put on how much we would need to focus on the education system, both in terms of facilities and in terms of performance."



-- Murrey: "I think that we need a collaborative (county board) and I don't think we need to be trying to amplify the differences between Jennifer and me, or Bill James and me, for that matter. The more we can do to try to talk about how we can do things together as opposed to how we can split each other apart, I think we'll do better making decisions going forward."


-- Roberts: "We have neighborhoods where the price of the house was $250,000 a house and now it's fallen to $130,000 a house. And we've got people who put their life savings in it, and now they're thinking of leaving and not being able to sell their house because the neighborhood's declined. This has happened in four years. It is a tragedy."


-- Murrey: "I don't feel like I have a lot of choice in the matter. I've been called to do this (serve the community). I've been the beneficiary of a lot of support from a lot of people who didn't have to do that. I grew up in a small (Tennessee) town that was very supportive of me, that took every opportunity to be sure that I had what I needed. They didn't have to do that.... I've had a lot of opportunity my whole life. I don't think it's fair for me to hoard that for myself. I need to give some back.

"But it's not just about me and giving back.... I start to feel sick when I'm in a situation where there is injustice and dissension. And I got to get very concerned about this community when the (2005 school) bond package and I didn't understand why it failed. That's what concerned me the most, that there was dissension in this community that I was totally missing. I mean, you'd see pieces of it popping up here and there, but that was a warning bell for me. And the more I get into it, the more I learn about it, the more real it becomes to me and the more concerning it becomes to me.

"We've got a choice to make. We're either going to be together 20 years from now, or we're all going to be fighting for our own, and not fighting for everybody. To me it's as simple as the Golden Rule: Love your neighbor. I look around here: Who's not my neighbor? Who should I not care about? When you look at the world from that perspective,it is hard not to try to get in and bring people together."


-- Roberts: "When you get into the neighborhoods and see people where they live, where they shop, everyone wants a stable environment where they can raise a healthy family. And they want a better future for their children than they have. And they want the opportunity and the promise to be there.... One of the things that helps connect us is that desire for our children to have a better world than we have today. Sometimes it takes a long vision...."


Joel Ford recognized


The Forum also congratulated Joel Ford, recently elected chairman of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party.

In a short reply, Ford said, "At the end of the day, the issues that bind us are far greater than the issues that separate us.... It's important that we deal with the past, but we've got to move on to the future."












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