Roanoke City Council Candidate Joe Cobb on Deterring Youth From Gun Violence, Dismantling Racism, and Listening to Land

Joe Cobb, a Democrat, is one of nine candidates in the regular Roanoke City Council election Nov. 8, 2022.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CANDIDATE

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 Cobb, a Democrat, Jackson, an independent, and Hagen, a Republican.

Cobb, 60, is a part-time chaplain at Hermitage Roanoke, a senior living community in Northwest Roanoke. A resident of Old Southwest, he was first elected in 2018 to Roanoke City Council and serves as chair of the city's Gun Violence Prevention Commission.

In the spring, we interviewed candidates running in a competitive open Democratic primary; Cobb's interview for that race can be found here.

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.

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Why should people elect you to serve on Roanoke City Council?

I ran for City Council four years ago with three core values in mind: social justice, equity and equality. Within that framework of values, I approach every decision or issue that comes before the City Council. Using those three lenses helps to make sure that whatever decision I help make is not only in the best interest of the city as a whole, but also for the people within the city whom that decision directly affects.

I have made a commitment to show up and be present every day, and I have faithfully carried that out. It is why I know so much about our city and care so much about our city. It is also why I have been able to connect people with the resources they need, whether they require assistance from local government, or a nonprofit organization, or an after-school program, or even in getting a pothole filled, for instance.

I’ve also invested in what I believe are some really important priorities in our city. While we’ve seen a significant increase in violence in Roanoke and around the nation, I worked with City Council and with over 100 community partners to develop a gun violence prevention strategy, which we are implementing. We are already seeing some of the effects from this work, in terms of people whose lives are changing, including youth who are choosing different pathways away from violence and families who are getting the support they need.

The challenge is that some of those changes that we’re seeing through our prevention and intervention efforts are not as measurable because they are based on relationships, rather than raw numbers. So the data we see, unfortunately, is showing an increase in gun violence. What’s not being recorded as much is the increase we’re seeing in opioid overdose deaths, which are about four or five times the deaths we were seeing due to guns.

All of that is to say, as a City Council member, I’m really invested in our city in working toward community-based solutions that engage citizens, businesses, and community partners. I recognize that we have to all be engaged in this work in order to truly make a difference for our city. That’s the commitment that I’ve brought to the table, which I’m currently fulfilling, and which I would be honored to continue to fulfill if elected for another term.

One problem on many residents’ minds 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?

I have not experienced injury, physically. But I’m impacted every time there’s an incident of gun violence. I have friends who have lost loved ones due to gun violence, and who have been injured due to gun violence. I have a dear friend whose son took his life a few years ago. So, yes. I have been impacted personally. Every incident just makes my heart ache and, more than anything, I want to see a reduction in these incidents occurring because I know the brokenness that families are experiencing.

I’m also concerned that we create more pathways for people to grieve, to heal, and to address the individual and collective trauma that we’re all going through. I’m dedicated to these things. I feel these things personally. I live those realities, and it is probably why I care so deeply about our city.

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 would continue to support the overall positive and healthy workplace environment that the police department is creating. I think, in addition to compensation, we want our officers to know that they are supported in the physical workplace. We want them to know that, if there are additional needs for resources as they expand their involvement in the community, that we’re working alongside them to do that so that we can provide that community support.

My understanding is that the greatest challenge right now is getting people to apply. We have one of the finest police academies in the Commonwealth of Virginia. We have our own police academy that we share collaboratively with Salem and Roanoke County, so we work regionally to support each other’s police departments and to call on each other when we need to. But we want to make sure that our department is as strong as it can be. We’re going to continue to keep an eye on the total compensation package.

I’m curious about other things we might do to enhance that environmental strength. There’s been some conversation over the years for city employees in general, but particularly for first responders for whom the stress level can be pretty extraordinary. We can look at housing incentives, whether there’s available housing in the community so that officers can locate in the city. Our officers obviously need downtime, but when we have police officers living throughout the city, then they have that firsthand experience of being a neighbor to somebody. That enhances our overall experience.

You mentioned we have approved and adopted a very good compensation package and pay level package for officers. We want to make sure that we not only can recruit new talent, but that we can retain it because one of the things that makes any department stronger is longevity. We’ve seen a number of retirements in the last few years, where people have served our department for a long time. So some of the vacancies are related to those retirements.

I learned recently that we had 55 vacancies of sworn officers in March. On September 21 of this year, we had 46. So, we’re reducing that gap, which is encouraging, and I know the police department has been expanding their outreach and recruitment efforts significantly to support that.

What other options — besides increasing the police force — do you see as available to City Council for addressing some of the root causes of crime?

That’s what our Gun Violence Prevention Commission has been solely focused on. We are looking at those root causes, whether it is increased access to weapons, with people getting illegal access to those, young parents raising babies, sometimes called “babies raising babies,” intergenerational poverty, lack of transportation, or lack of opportunity. We’ve looked very closely at the correlation between root causes and youth wanting to join gangs. Often, it is connected to the need for something to belong to, needing someone to look up to, or needing something to do after school. But in a best-case scenario, those things should be filled by family, by school support, by after-school support, and by peer groups.

But work surrounding prevention and intervention takes so long because it is looking at addressing the systemic root causes. We see that, over the last few years, African-American men and youth predominantly have been disproportionately affected by gun violence, for instance. It is not even close. So, then, we focus on the reason as to that. What are the community’s breakdowns that we need to address in that scenario? So it’s a combination of talking with families who are living this reality and who are at higher risk to experience crime or violence, and making sure they have access to the resources and support they need, and also making sure our youth have access. A lot of that is access to opportunity. The more opportunity we can create, whether it is an after-school program or offering training in a particular trade or skill, or workforce development with pathways to jobs, the better.

One of our programs in the city is an apprenticeship program, which is a collaboration involving our Reset Team, which responds to rapid engagement to incidents of trauma in the community. This program pairs young people with jobs in city departments to give them direct experience in skills such as creating a résumé, creating and managing a budget, getting paid, and the dynamics of how their job is a part of their family system. That shows them how the family can also benefit from the strength of their work. So the program is not only reaching the parent or guardian and that entire family system.

In addition to what the police are doing, we have put significant effort into not only creating this safety net, but also creating this opportunity base in our community. It is comprised of so many organizations, including Roanoke City Public Schools and other community partners, working to increase opportunity in increasing access to that opportunity. This helps not only those who are most directly affected by violence, but also the community as a whole. It is a way to empower people who want to volunteer to be a part of the solution as well as those who are at a place in their lives where they need direct access to the services which are available.

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?

The city is taking some really significant steps, and I’ll give a couple of examples. A couple of years ago, we received a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that was awarded through Virginia Humanities to seven cities which had had a pretty awful history of segregation, places where evidence of segregation is still present. Through that grant, we created a series of community-wide conversations called “Changing the Narrative.” Points of Diversity was the lead agency and worked with all sorts of organizations, community groups, and neighborhood groups to address different aspects of racism and root causes of it, and the continuation of it. Out of those conversations came some pretty clear strategies.

Along with Councilman [Bill] Bestpitch and our city manager, I have been involved in some conversations with some African-American elders in our community over the past years to look at steps that could be taken to address racism, including a formal apology. It became clear to all of us that an apology, as important as that is, has to be connected with action. On September 21, we gathered at the corner of Franklin and Mountain Avenue to place a marker which acknowledges one of the lynchings in Roanoke’s history, that of Thomas Smith, which took place in 1893. We were able to do this thanks to the work of a lot of community members and the Equal Justice Initiative, and it is a way of acknowledging our painful history and some of the root causes of our racism and segregation. It is a part of the pathway toward healing and addressing that racism. I anticipate we will do a second marker for William Lavender.

I think the city is talking a lot more about the effects of redlining, and I am certainly seeing this through my own work. We saw evidence of this last year when we saw an urban heat mapping index and there was a direct overlay with areas of the city that have been redlined. The history of urban renewal, forced development, which happened over three decades, is an example, also.

I’m doing my doctorate on the history of the Coyner Springs Cemetery and Old Lick Cemetery, when 933 bodies were removed from Old Lick to make room for the 581 interchange. Orange Avenue is a really appalling part of our history. One of the things that’s most striking to me regards one of the monuments that was erected at Coyner Springs. The monument, which marks a large burial place and identifies the 933 bodies which were moved, also quotes a city ordinance. City ordinances are approved by City Council. So, as a current member of City Council, I feel a direct responsibility to correct some of the wrongs that took place during the season of urban renewal. So my personal investment in this subject is significant.

Our city is talking about addressing the wrongs created by racism and we realize that the action of putting up a marker recognizing one of the city’s lynchings, though significant, doesn’t erase segregation or erase racism. We also need to continue to put into place efforts to restore economic growth opportunities for persons affected by urban renewal. These people were predominantly African American, but the group also included immigrants who had started businesses here.

With ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] funding, we are making the effort to focus on a business incubator hub and a new health clinic in the Gainsboro area, and also a new grocery store in Northwest Roanoke. I think those efforts are two significant things we can do. In any future development models, we also need to pay particular attention to where we’ve been historically as a city, and what we need to do differently now, using that decision-making process to ensure that we are not repeating what has happened before. To me, every step we take should be a step in dismantling racism and dismantling segregation. If that’s not our top priority, then you’re missing something.

On Council, how would you advocate for mitigating the impacts of climate change at the local level?

I’m eager for us to move more quickly on our climate action plan. We have a new coordinator for our sustainability office, and she has already brought us recommendations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing our carbon footprint. On Council, I’m going to continue to prioritize anything we can do to increase our sustainability and also to make sure we are increasing our reliance on renewable energy. I just read that a couple of states are looking at creating an end date to stop production of cars that use gas. So we need to create a way to have more hybrid vehicles. Our city’s fleet is gradually changing over to electric vehicles, and we have already purchased three new electric buses. We’ve got to work with our state and federal partners to reduce the price of electric vehicles because they’re still relatively expensive, and we need to increase our charging infrastructure. Roanoke is right in the corridor to receive state and federal funding to do just that.

I want to make sure our plan is actionable, that it addresses the heat island index, that we increase the planting of trees, that we continue to make sure our city is pedestrian-friendly, bicycle-friendly, and transit-friendly. We need to work with our region, with our neighboring locality partners, to increase that access for all of those aspects. So, there are a lot of moving pieces to it. Also, we need to make the city’s infrastructure easier for solar use. We’re starting to see more homeowners asking to install solar energy as part of their homes, and we’re looking at the creative ways we can do that. In addition to increased trees, how do we sustain our park system and finish our Greenway system?

How do we reduce our reliance on plastics? One of the things that I am pleased that Council has done is the plastic bag tax. We created that with the intention that we would not receive revenue from it. But the reality is we received close to $80,000. When you think about it at five cents a bag, that’s a lot of plastic bags — over a million. That’s still too much reliance when we see these bags showing up in our waterways and showing up in our trash. It presents extraordinary challenges.

Circling back to the beginning, I believe that by spring of next year, we will have a pretty solid idea of what our Climate Action Plan will look like. And I’ll be excited to support that and encourage citizens to do the same.

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 support the current city manager, Bob Cowell. Why?

I think Bob is an extraordinary city manager. Bob has a keen ability to observe what is happening in the city and to bring together different stakeholders. He does a lot of that quietly. He’s someone that I admire; he’s a professional planner. So he has an ability to think about who are the community stakeholders and who we can bring to the table to look at the issues we’re facing as a community and how we can best address those issues.

Through Bob’s leadership, as a city we did something that very few cities did when CARES Act funding and ARPA funding came. Together, we agreed at his initiative to appoint a citizen panel of 40 citizens who worked with the mayor and vice mayor to sort out how to prioritize how we wanted those dollars distributed in the community. So I worked with the community and the mayor and Vice Mayor Patricia White-Boyd on the CARES Act funding, but the citizens are the ones who decided how to invest and how to prioritize. They said, ‘These are our goals.’ The city manager and the City Council are working hand-in-hand to deliver on those things. That’s thanks to Bob’s leadership.

I can’t say enough about how much Bob cares about the city, how hard he works to try and make things work, and how concerned he is about making sure that, while local government has its role, we don’t operate alone in the city. It takes businesses, it takes nonprofit organizations, it takes citizens, it takes neighborhood groups. His dedication to making sure all of that works together is something I’m really proud of.

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?

No.

Second part. Have you ever been charged with a crime — including traffic violations? If so, what did you learn from that experience?

I had a couple of speeding tickets a long time ago and from that, of course, I learned to pay closer attention. One of those occurred during a really challenging time in my life, and it really caused me to step back and reflect on what’s most essential, which boils down to my relationship with my family and my friends, and the work that I do in the community.

Have you ever ridden on Valley Metro?

Yes, I ride Valley Metro fairly frequently. It depends on what my work schedule is. Most days, I’m all over the city. But I try to ride Valley Metro at least once a week, multiple times a month. Sometimes I ride it just to do a full loop around, just to talk with people who are riding, and to hear some of their stories and perspectives about how we can strengthen transit.

I’m really excited that we are going to be offering Metro Flex, which will be the on-demand scheduled bus service. That program will expand transit to 12:45 in the morning Monday through Saturday and expand transit service on Sundays, which we’ve not had for decades, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. So, I’m very excited about that.

I’m also excited about our real-time app, VMGO, which we will be launching this fall, and which will let you know when your bus is arriving, like if it’s running behind. You can get all your information about fares and buying fares, too.

And, then we are getting to move into the building for our new transit center in the next month or two. Construction is currently ahead of schedule. I know that our bus operators and our riders are excited about that.

I’m also thrilled that, according to our recent data, ridership has been increasing every month since we’ve emerged from the pandemic. In August, it was up 15 percent. So, there’s certainly an increase in ridership.

What specific improvements do you think the city should make to its public transportation system, and by when should those changes be completed?

My long term hope is that as we are able to hire and retain more bus operators, and that we’ll be able to expand our routes and peak service, and then eventually shorten the time between when you can access a bus. Now, it’s on an hourly basis, but to be able to shorten that ride time will be really helpful.

I would encourage more people to ride. I think the more people that ride, the better we can gauge what we need. You know, so many people utilize transit as their primary source of transportation. As we become a city that’s more pedestrian and bicycle transit friendly, we’re going to have more people moving into our community from larger communities who want to use transit all the time. So we have to think about how we can adapt our model to address that. But in order to do that, I think on a larger scale, we need to be able to have transit that moves fluidly, throughout our region. We’re a bit limited in that we go into Salem and into Vinton but we don’t go into Roanoke County, and so I’m very hopeful that in the next five to 10 years, we can see some pilot programs that will extend the transit availability into Roanoke County. I think that will provide a significant service for people who want to utilize it and help change the dynamic of how we utilize and view public transit.

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 think we have to work in private-public partnerships to continue to sustain economic growth and development to address some of the root causes that contribute to poverty, whether that’s food insecurity, lack of access to health care, or transportation. We are working on those. I have to give kudos to our Department of Social Services and the employees who work tirelessly everyday with families who are experiencing poverty. A lot of their work is focused not only on connecting them with resources but making sure that families can thrive. It’s really important that we can help individuals move from the need to work two or three jobs into a job that actually gives them a livable, sustainable wage that can support their family.

Sometimes that means increasing access to workforce training opportunities. We’ve just made an investment with our Virginia Career Works Workforce Development Board to increase their efforts to connect people with job training, to not only increase their household income, but help them reduce some of those other obstacles. If you’ve got a family that has one vehicle and maybe two adults who are working different shifts, then they’re likely going to have to share that vehicle. It may mean that if they have a teenager who wants to go do something, they may not have the transportation. So, that’s why we have to work with Roanoke City Public Schools and the ROTEC [Roanoke Technical Education Center] program to make sure the teens have transportation.

So it’s this multifaceted community network that really has to work together. Council’s role, I think, is continuing to prioritize reducing poverty as a strategy, and making sure that the agencies in our community whose primary work, like TAP [Total Action for Progress], is dedicated to that. But we’re working hand in hand to see those numbers go down. I was really surprised and delighted to see that, according to the most recent data I saw from the Department of Social Services, our poverty rate numbers among adults was down from 20 percent to 15 percent. The child poverty rate is still higher. But the work we did with Carilion to incorporate the LIFT Clinic as part of Fallon Park Elementary School, that’s the kind of model we like to see. The work we’re doing to get a grocery store in Northwest, to bring a health clinic to the Gainsboro area, those are all critical actions that we can take and support as a council. But that’s not just Council acting alone. That is the community saying, ‘This is important to us, and let’s make it a priority.’

What’s your philosophy on residential or commercial developments whose construction would involve reducing green space, such as clear-cutting trees or eliminating parkland?

Going back to where I started with social justice and equity, when it comes to economic development and land development, I think we need to start with what the land is saying to us. That’s a very philosophical statement, but the land was here before any of us and there’s a history to the land. The land has its natural amenities and assets. Rather than saying, ‘What can I do to this land?’ ask: ‘What is this land inviting me to do? What is this land inviting us to do?’ So when we look at a parcel of land, I think we have to discover and understand its history and understand its contents. Who has lived here? What’s happened here? Has there been a lot of good? Has there been a lot of harm here? What would meaningful development of the site look like, if it needs to be developed?

We have a huge park system that is critically important to our city, and we have increasingly limited green space. A lot of the green space that’s being looked at for development has water. It has trees. It has wildlife and birds. All these things are contributors, so how do we sustain what is already strong with this land and its environment? How do we add to that? I’m not a proponent of taking away from that just to put something there, no doubt.

If we’re going to utilize that space to provide affordable homes to someone, that’s a good thing. What are those buildings going to be like? Are they going to be green buildings? Are they going to enhance the environment? Or are they going to deter it? How is what is done or proposed to be done going to flow with the neighborhoods around it? That can include everything from traffic to making sure that the neighborhood experience that people have isn’t compromised. They should still feel like it is still a neighborhood. They still see trees. They can walk down to the river or walk along the Greenway. All of those things are factors to me, and are things I’m going to look at in the development of any proposal or plan that may come before Council.

Usually when it gets to Council, it has been through a very long process that may include rezoning or approval of the Planning Commission. It really depends on the nature of it. But as I said in the beginning, I’m going to look through those lenses of social justice and equity to make sure that whatever we do is not repeating past wrongs. Are we really looking at what the land is saying to us? What can we learn from this land? How can we continue to sustain the land while also helping people who may be in need? How are we sustaining the environmental integrity of the land and the neighborhoods connected to it?

This question is unique to you. We mentioned former councilman Jeffrey, who was convicted of defrauding the city out of CARES Act funding. As a member of City Council and chair of the city's audit committee, how have you ensured fiscal oversight of how the city’s CARES and ARPA funds have been and are being spent? Is there anything more you think needs to be done to prevent fraud?

In our departments, the funding was distributed through a lot of different processes. Some of it went through the Economic Development Authority, some of it went through the human services advisory boards, through arts and culture. So there were different ways, but at every step of the way, there’s been a very clear process of vetting and then monitoring. In our organization, we’re doing everything we need to do because we were continuing to receive guidelines from the federal government as we were distributing these funds. The Economic Development Authority took a step back and asked, ‘What additional safeguards can we put in place to ensure that this does not happen again?’ I commend them for that. I think we want to pay careful attention to that, as a local government, because we are stewards of those dollars. We want to make sure that the intention through which they were set aside to go back into the community is fulfilled in good faith.

What are you reading currently?

I’m currently reading a lot of stuff for my doctorate, which is focused on multiple areas. As I mentioned before, my doctorate is addressing the history of Old Lick and Coyner Springs Cemeteries and how the breath of our ancestors is speaking for reparation and justice, so I’m reading a lot of books right now on the history of reparations and what contemporary reparations look like. I’m looking at the effects of trauma on African-American communities, not only in regard to urban renewal historically, but how trauma is carried forward through generations. If it’s never addressed or discussed, or efforts aren’t made  to bring about healing, then trauma increases trauma. Root Shock: [How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It by Mindy Fullilove] is one book I’m reading, which actually includes Roanoke’s history of urban renewal.

I’m also reading a couple of really powerful books on reparations. Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair [by Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson] is a powerful book on how congregations can work within communities to bring forward meaningful reparations. From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century [by Kirsten Mullen and William A. Darity Jr.] is a powerful history of reparation efforts that have been made historically, and the conversations that have begun about them and then the results of those.

I know that some local governments have actually created reparation funds, and I’m really intrigued by that. For my doctorate, I’m interested in relating that to families of loved ones who were moved from one cemetery to another, being able to name them and honor them. Secondly, that was part of a larger tear in the fabric of our communities, the wounds from which we still haven’t experienced a lot of healing. So, a lot of what I’m reading right now is for that.

The last fun book I read was The House in the Cerulean Sea [by TJ Klune], an excellent, lovely book about genius beloved outliers who create a community of their own because they may never be accepted into mainstream society. As a gay man, yet a white man, I walk that line every day, having privilege but also feeling ostracized and excluded. What about the person who has no privilege? Who is always feeling excluded or marginalized? How can I not only be a voice for them, but help them discover their voice to become the next leader that we need in our city?