In advance of the Nov. 8 election for Roanoke City Council, The Roanoke Rambler is publishing interviews with each of the 11 candidates.
This week, we feature three candidates — one Democrat, one Republican and one independent — running for a regular four-year term of office.
Voters will be able to choose no more than three candidates out of nine running. The candidates are Dalton Baugess, David Bowers, Joe Cobb, Nick Hagen, Jamaal Jackson, Maynard Keller, Vivian Sanchez-Jones, Preston Tyler and Peter Volosin. (Democrat Luke Priddy and Republican Peg McGuire are running in a special election to fill a two-year Council seat.)
This week, we sit down with Baugess, a Republican, Volosin, a Democrat, and Tyler, an independent.
Baugess, 52, is a logistics officer with the rank of captain in Salem Fire-EMS. He is a resident of the Grandin Court neighborhood in southwest Roanoke. This is his first run for elected office.
Candidates did not receive copies of the questions beforehand, and every interview was conducted either over the phone or in-person.
These interviews are accessible to non-subscribers to promote civic engagement among the widest possible audience. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Why should people elect you to serve on Roanoke City Council?
I have been in public service since I was 16 years old. In 1987, I first joined the rescue squad, and I have been answering 911 calls ever since. I have a great idea what's going on in Roanoke on our streets, and it concerns me. And all of everything I have learned has prompted me to run for City Council, because I want to make a difference and I want to change what's going on on our streets, and try to fix some things, from the crime that's going up to the struggles that our public safety's having, between police and fire. And truly, a lot of people don't realize what's going on.
One problem on many residents’ minds, like you said, is violent crime — particularly shootings and homicides — which have increased both in Roanoke and across the country in recent years. Have you personally been affected by violent crime while living in Roanoke?
Well, so this was the deciding factor for me to do this. My son and his friends were over at our house on a Friday night. And they were up early one Saturday morning, this was back in February. And I could tell something wasn’t right. One, they were up early, that's uncharacteristic, but they were on their phones and they were looking like there was something going on. One of their football teammates had been gunned down in Blacksburg. To see them upset, to see them get ready for a funeral, that was the final push I needed to do this.
You know, I don't think people truly understand what is going on on the streets. This is across the board, you know, all the localities are experiencing shortages in police and fire and EMS. And the result is, they're working short-staffed or, in the fire departments’ case, they've been forced to shut down engines periodically, and not all of the ambulances now have paramedics on them. And you know, it's not only a Roanoke problem, it is a valley-wide problem.
Now, on the last weekend of August I did a ride-along with the police department. I was there from 7:30 at night until 2:30 in the morning. And, you know, it confirmed things that I already knew, but it really drove home one thing. A police officer in Roanoke City is a different police officer than one in Salem and Roanoke County, and their pay should reflect that. Because these men and women, they go out, they don't think about where they go, they know they have a job to do, and they got to do their job. That was encouraging to see that, and the shift I was with looked like they got along great, they worked well together and they were a good team.
The Friday night before that, a female officer stepped up to the plate. She was going to a call, pulled into a parking lot and she knew immediately one of two things. One, she could roll her window up, drive away and wait for backup or two, she could confront the subject, and she knew immediately that she was going to have to fight. And before she got out of her car, he attacked her. So hats off to her. She got overpowered, the bystander got overpowered, she was transported to the hospital as well as the bystander, and the subject took her car. And her backup never showed up in time. [Editor's note: In response to a request for comment, the Roanoke Police Department said Baugess appeared to be referring to an Aug. 26 incident in which a man fought with an officer, stole her police cruiser and crashed in Botetourt County. He was later arrested.]
So all of these things just concern me very, very much. You know, if you have high crime numbers, you don't really grab the eye of economic developers, because they stay away from high-crime areas. When you have numbers, if you go to the Virginia State Police website and type in ‘crime data’ it comes up with a report and you can see, anybody can see all this information. But you know, last year, I’ll find it real quick. Last year, Roanoke had 64 rapes. Yeah, forcible rapes, 64. I mean, if you look at those numbers, that is truly, truly scary. We are going in the wrong direction. If you go back to 2018, we had over 300 people in the police department. Today we have 240. That’s as of their last reporting of 2021 and I’ve heard that they could be anywhere from 70 to 100 short.
Roanoke’s police department has significant vacancy issues, and every candidate has said the city needs to hire more officers. Last year, City Council approved compensation packages that the police department described as “one of the most significant pay increases for officers in several years,” and Police Chief Sam Roman said in an April Rambler interview that he is satisfied with the resources that Council has provided. Is there anything you would do on Council to try to hire more officers, particularly since higher pay alone has not led to a significant increase in officers?
I think there's a lot of things that need to be looked at, certainly. I've been told by multiple people that current members of the city council, in the summer of 2020, when everybody was trying to defund the police and get rid of the police, we had City Council members in the streets painting with the, you know, protesters here in Roanoke. And, when things like that happen, that's not really a good morale booster for the police department. And when things like that happen, why would you want to work for a locality like that?
If you can make the same money working for Roanoke County or Salem and do less work, run less calls, you know, that's what a lot of people are doing. They're not getting out of police work, they're just changing who they do it for. Roanoke doesn’t need to be equal to the other localities. Roanoke needs to be an example. If you're fourth-highest in crime in the state per capita, then your police department pay and your fire department pay need to reflect that. A good example is Roanoke City Fire-EMS runs over 30,000 calls a year. In Salem, they run a little over 6,000 calls a year. And the pay is the same. So where would you want to go work? Roanoke’s going to have to be a leader in the industry and make the other localities, either follow them or, you know, but they have to be the leader. They have to be the leader in pay in the industry. They need proper equipment to do their jobs with. When you're outgunned by the gangs, we have a problem.
What other options — besides increasing the police force — do you see as available to City Council for addressing the root causes of crime?
Back in the day, you know, they had street crime units, and they don't have that today like they once had because they don't have the staffing to do that with. I’ve heard some drastic numbers. I’ve heard at times it’s so short, they have seven to 11 officers covering the whole city. They have 14 districts, they’re supposed to be one officer per district, they're supposed to roughly have 20 people per shift working and they don't have those numbers because they don't have the staffing. So what I would do is ask the state for help. I would create a regional street crimes unit and have members of the State Police, ATF, DEA, and members of the Roanoke police and other jurisdictions on it and have these street crime units go out. And they go where the crimes are happening, you know, whether it's Roanoke, and if they have to chase them to Roanoke County, Salem, wherever they go where they need to go, and they deal with it.
Here’s the problem. When they do get caught, you know, they're getting smacked on the hand, they're going back out on the street. That needs to stop. There has to be consequences for their actions. When you get somebody with multiple felonies, and they get caught with a gun, and it's reduced to a plea deal of carrying without a permit, that's a problem. And you know, the gun buyback programs that are taking place, I've been told that there's been gun shop owners who have taken guns to them, because they can get more for that gun through the gun buyback program than they can sell it for out of their shop. And the guns that they're buying back, they're not being used on the streets.
You have these kids, I mean, we have teenagers going out and doing car-hopping. They're just going around neighborhoods and they're opening car doors and they're going through unlocked cars. And sometimes, a lot of times, they get guns. Earlier this summer, May probably, they were breaking in cars out at the hotels at the mall. They got two guns, they proceeded go to Salem to do the same thing, they got some ammunition out of a car in Salem, they go to Christiansburg, the Christiansburg police catch them they get a high speed chase on the interstate, they stopped the chase, the state police found them, pick the chase up, the car crashed and driver and passenger were flown to the hospital, the driver got ejected, and the two passengers in the back were taken to the the hospital by ground. Three were from Roanoke and one was from North Carolina.
So you have guns coming in from out of state, you have guns being stolen. They’re not going to Sportsman's [Warehouse] and buying the guns. And the gun buyback program is really, you know, just enabling people to take guns to them that are older that aren't being used on the streets. When you have people shooting at each other in cars with AK-47s, we have a problem. So, the police department needs proper equipment to do their jobs with. So, the city is divided in four provinces already. And those four quadrants are broken down into districts, but the four zones of the city, they need satellite offices for the police department. You know, they need to have a place where they can go, have something to eat, have a bathroom, have a place to go for 10 minutes to let their guard down, to relax for 10 minutes, versus being in Northwest or Southwest and having to drive all the way back downtown to the police station to have a chance to use the bathroom. That was one thing that I noticed out with them is you know, you're constantly on guard. You're constantly watching your back and you know, you can't take a moment and relax. You’ve got to be conscious where you park your car so no one can walk up on you from behind.
What specific steps do you believe city government should take to address Roanoke’s history and legacy of racism, which includes city-sanctioned segregation, redlining, discrimination and urban renewal?
Well, you know, I care about the whole city, you know, and I don't see color. I mean, you know, God created man and woman and that's what we have. I don't think there's any room for racism. My grandparents grew up on part of Melrose Avenue, and I remember what Melrose looked like in the day and I hate to see what it is today. I feel sorry for the people that live over there, I feel sorry that they don't have a grocery store to go to. I would like to change that. I’ll give you an example, 24th Street and Salem Turnpike. There's an old store across from the Family Dollar there, and a friend of mine’s a developer, and he tried bringing a national chain grocery store to that lot. And the city wanted the building built up front and the developer and the grocery store chain wanted the store in the back with parking in the front and they could not come together with planning for an agreement. And, you know, just think what would’ve happened if they could have got a national chain grocery store right there. That right there, could have helped so many people. I hate that it didn't happen.
On Council, how would you advocate for mitigating the impacts of climate change at the local level?
I mean, honestly, of course local government needs to be respectful all they can on environmental issues. Roanoke doesn't have a good history. Were you around when they were going to build the football field where Haley Toyota sits? They go to grade the land and they uncover all kinds of barrels of waste that the City of Roanoke buried years ago. So, you know, Roanoke needs to be conscious and have initiatives for businesses, to do the same.
However, we can't kill our economy, trying to do things. We need to take care of our waterways, but we don't need to break the bank by trying to make green roofs and put in charging stations everywhere for electric vehicles, when honestly, the average person cannot afford an electric vehicle. And if you ever see a charging station, look at the amount of voltage or kilowatt that the transformer is rated for, for a charging station, then go look at the one for the convenience store where it sits. Most likely, it is a bigger kilowatt transformer for the charging station than the convenience store.
But, you know, again, when you have the issues going on, on the streets that we have going on in Roanoke, that is my first priority is to do something about that. When you have 15-year-olds being gunned down in the street, there's a problem. And I'm referring to the Saturday of Labor Day weekend that that boy was shot so bad that the fire department didn't even transport him. He was dead in the streets. I have learned so much from people that I know that we have a serious problem, and if we do not address it, it's only going to get worse. All parts of this city have been affected by gun violence. Even in South Roanoke, they had a shooting in front of a 7-11, in Crystal Springs, in that area.
Roanoke operates on a weak mayor form of government, meaning that much power and authority rests with the city manager, whom City Council hires and to whom City Council provides a vision and direction for the city. You said at a Council candidate forum in August that you do not support the current city manager, Bob Cowell. Why is that?
One, if you're the city manager, and things aren't going well, in your city, ultimately, you're responsible. You know, he should be pushing to stop the issues that are going on in our streets. I look at his response and how he handled it when the fire department went to him about the pay issues that they're having in the Council meeting, and he got angry with them. That's not how you conduct things. And I don't like that. You know, you listen to people, you listen to their side, you don't show emotions, you don't get angry and you work for resolution. We need to have some resolution with what's going on throughout the city.
A lot of departments in the city are struggling. Probably the hardest working people in the city are, you know, the men and women who drive the trash trucks that come to everybody's house every week and get everybody's trash. Well, that's been delayed some weeks because of staffing issues. So ultimately, you know, that goes all the way back to the city manager. Why are we having staffing issues? What's being done to address it? And those things may be happening, but there's nothing in the public about it. Ultimately he does not, to me, look like he is very supportive of our public safety. If you don't have a safe community, you will have people leave, you will have businesses leave. Vistar tried bringing a new doctor to Vistar and made her a great offer. She turned them down. So they said, ‘Well, why do you not want to come work in Roanoke, to work for Vistar?’ She goes, ‘The crime rate in Roanoke is too high. I don’t want to move there.’ When you have recruiters for Carilion bring staff and physicians in and they know to avoid the bad areas of Roanoke so they don't see it, there's a problem. We need a strong city manager that is going to step up to the plate and start addressing these problems.
Roanoke is holding a special election this year because of the felony convictions of former councilman Robert Jeffrey Jr., who was found guilty in March of embezzlement and obtaining money by false pretenses. Even before the charges were announced, Jeffrey had a history — which was publicly available in court records — of not paying people. Do you have any history of financial mismanagement or impropriety?
None. I've been in local government my whole life. Back in the day, when I was with the volunteer rescue squad in Salem, we had a couple incidences of people taking money. To experience that and go through that, it sheds just a different light on it. You have to be responsible with the taxpayers’ money. You have to be accounted for that. You know, with my job now with the fire department it scares me to death, every time I spend something, I have that receipt, I write on that receipt what it was for. I am very paranoid about that, and I've always gone the extra mile to document and keep track of everything like that. You have to be. Even with my campaign stuff, I’m writing, ‘This is what I did, and here's the receipt.’ And then there's some things I'm like, ‘I’ll just buy it on my own.’ You have to do monthly reporting for your campaign stuff.
And have you ever been charged with a crime — including traffic violations? If so, what did you learn from that experience?
No criminal violations.
Have you ever ridden on Valley Metro? And what improvements do you think the city could make to its public transportation system?
I've only written on it a couple of times. I would have to really evaluate it and look at it, you know, and look at the ridership, see how it's being used, what could be done differently? What's working, what's not working? So I will say this that, if elected, I plan on retiring next year and so I would almost be like a full-time council member.
Like I said, I've been answering 911 calls since 1987. I have served that long to the community of Salem. In the ’90s, early ’90s, I worked in Roanoke City with Roanoke City Fire-EMS. And so that was one of the ways I really got to know Roanoke early on was, you know, running all over the city answering 911 calls. And that's the only thing I've ever done. So I've always served the community, I've been in Roanoke for, I guess, 22 years now in Grandin Court. I don't plan on going anywhere, and I just want to make it better for my children and everybody else's children, and our community. Roanoke’s got a lot going for it and we need to capitalize on it.
One in every five Roanoke residents lives in poverty, and nearly half of all households make less than $45,000 annually, according to Census data. What can City Council do to reduce the city’s poverty rate and increase families’ wealth?
I would like to see more regional partnerships, working on bringing business like factories and production plants. You look at, we have a major interstate system that runs through the region. We have a rail system that runs through the region. We need to capitalize on those things and market Roanoke. We need to bring industry and business back here. We need to get people trained to do the jobs and get people working and get people on their feet. And, you know, everybody should have their own house. Everybody should provide something to their community and we need to get people working, we need to get jobs and businesses in here so they can do that. Roanoke started off as a railroad town. We've kind of lost that. But if you don't change your business model, you'll go out of business, right?
So we've got to do a better job at attracting business here, and industry here, to get people working, so they can have local jobs. I get it, if they don't have a car, they have to have something close by where they can go to work, and that's why we need to encourage and work with industry to get production jobs here and get businesses here. So people can work here. With my job, I ride around a lot, to go to places where I need to go. I look at all the vacant buildings that Roanoke has, and we need to work through economic development and promote Roanoke: ‘Hey, we have this property for sale, or for rent. Why don’t you come here, look here?’ That's what we need, to be marketing Roanoke. But again, you need to get this crime under control so you can market Roanoke, so you can attract things.
What’s your philosophy on residential or commercial developments whose construction would involve reducing green space, such as clear-cutting trees or eliminating parkland?
So it goes back to this. We need to work with what we already have before we look at doing something to take the green space away. And a good example, as I keep hearing, everybody talks about the Evans Spring property. Let's go look at the old Crossroads Mall. Let's go look, there's property there in front of the airport, it's supposed to have been an outlet mall concept, but it never took off. We have all these properties around Roanoke, that you could rehab the building to meet its current needs, or you can take it down and rebuild. Those are the things that we need to look at before we start doing away with other spaces or property.
I would like to see some sort of development done along our greenways where you have little shops and restaurants and things like that. I would love to see stuff like that done. But, you know, as far as clear-cutting land and building new, I'd have to see it first. I would rather rehab the property so it's not vacant, so it's not an eyesore, versus taking away what green space that we have left. I mean, I think that makes more sense. If you take away all your green space to build things then you're taking away from Roanoke.
This question is unique to you. Your campaign platform notes you want “parents to have more say in the education of their children.” What does that mean to you?
I mean, parents need to know what their children are being taught. They need to be able to go to schools, if their child has a special needs issue, they should be able to get the services that they need to help their children make it and the children with special needs need the support from the schools to get what they need. The kids, they need a good, safe learning environment, and the parents need to be involved in every decision that's done in the teaching of their children.
What are you reading currently?
I don't have time. There's nothing, because when I go to bed, I'm ready to go to bed. I'm not reading anything. I mean, since I've started this, I don't get a day off. You know, we're short at work, so I work overtime and on occasions, I worked an extra 1,000 hours last year at the fire department because we were so short. So when I lay down, when my head hits the pillow, I'm gone. I’m not reading anything other than like, crime stats and stuff like that to learn what's going on, and emails and things. Things around the house I need to get done, and I just don't have the time to do it.
I feel so important about wanting to make a difference in what's going on in Roanoke that I'm struggling to keep other things up. It's definitely been an experience. I can say that. I’ve enjoyed it. I've met a lot of cool people and really, I've enjoyed it.