Roanoke City Council Candidate Luke Priddy on Working in State Government, Investing in Parks and Pushing the City Manager

Luke Priddy, a Democrat, is one of two candidates in a special 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 the two candidates running in a special election to fill the unexpired, two-year term of former councilman Robert Jeffrey Jr. After felony convictions in March, Jeffrey forfeited his seat, to which City Council appointed Anita Price in the interim.

Democrat Luke Priddy and Republican Peg McGuire are running in the race.

Priddy, 30, is chief of staff to state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke. A resident of Old Southwest, Priddy ran for City Council in 2020 and sought appointment to Jeffrey’s seat this year.

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 thought a lot about why I'm running but, honestly, I think I have a unique skill set — a will and desire to independently research and figure out things for myself. I know that we need to rely on the data and information that we get from the city manager and the city attorney. But it's also our job to challenge them and push for things that we think are right, and advocate on behalf of citizens.

When I came into Senator [John] Edwards’s office, there’s this perception that people have a political agenda, and that they're like, ‘We're going to push for these policies and this is what we're doing.’ What I found is that a majority of the legislation that gets put forth is based on something, an issue that someone is having, either with the law or something in their community that they want to see changed. And we know how to make that happen.

We know how to navigate not only through legislative procedure, but the bureaucracy of that. For a lot of people, it's overwhelming, it's mundane. I really enjoy taking things apart, putting them back together, figuring them out, and helping people navigate through [the process] so that they can reach their own goals, as long as those things are lined up generally with my value sets.

My family has given me a strong commitment to service throughout my life. I've enjoyed doing that in a government role in Senator Edwards’s office. But I think that I am capable of so much more for the city and the people in it serving in an elected position. There's only so much you know until you get into a position. There's so much I've tried to do from outside of City Council. I think it'll be so much more effective sitting behind the dais than I will standing at the podium.

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 personally have not been a victim of any crime while living in Roanoke. I've seen issues throughout the community.

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?

When it comes to hiring more officers, it is incredibly important that we have more, if not only to have enough to be able to respond to calls. In the report that the police chief gave in July, he shared with Council that their staffing levels are so low that they're not even able to do the same amount of community engagement that they typically have been able to do in the past.

We do need to hire more. Everyone's talking about increasing pay. That is something that we could probably address a little bit further. It's not going to solve the issue. It is important to note that the city council took very proactive steps to even make sure that their legislative agenda focused on asking for more money from the state.

In Senator Edwards's office, we were able to press for more 599 funding. There's supposed to be a formula for how much each locality gets based on an increase in the state's budget. But that formula has not necessarily been followed in quite some time. So Roanoke City has been shortchanged of what they're supposed to be getting from the state. Given the higher revenues in the past year, we focused on how much more of that money can we get for all the localities and consequently that would be more money for Roanoke. We were successful at getting more money, or at least more of our share, than I think we've gotten in a decade. It was not as much as we asked for. But a lot of that can now be used to, or was used to, address compensation.

Something that we've noticed in our office is the retirement system, and that has been brought up in debates, is the Virginia Retirement System.

The city does have their own retirement system and some people seem to be very happy with that. I believe, in the past, it's been a disincentive for people to leave because you have to work for so many years in the City of Roanoke to be vested in your retirement before you can move. But with VRS, you can work in a job and you might be able to move localities and still contribute to that retirement in order to increase what you're contributing for. I think not being eligible for that is a disincentive for people to move in right away and so we're having to train new recruits.

Retirement benefits, paying them more I mean, it really is a nationwide issue. I don't know what the answers are. I've read a couple reports on it. But these are at least two things we should look at doing.

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?

Investing in all of our resources across Roanoke, and not just a police department. This could be social services. These could be counselors. This could be mental health. It could even be putting more money into education. Violent crime is a holistic issue. The root of it, and the only way to solve it, is not just going to be enforcement or having more police officers. But I think it's important that we look at which departments in the city need more help. Where could that be effective towards reducing violent crime? And is there a more equitable way to use these funds?

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?

First, it's important to just recognize the history. The fact that these things did take place, and that the government and institutions generally played a large role in reinforcing these policies that have had a negative impact on so many people in Roanoke, but also across the nation.

Certain things like zoning, or a lot of what led to redlining, or consequences of it — that might be the first place that we should determine what we should be doing to address it. If it was government policies that reinforced these negative institutions, there might be government policies that can get us out of them. But it's also where are we going to invest our resources?

There's an urban heat island study, and it focused on how certain parts of the city, like in Northwest where there aren't as many large trees, deal with more negative effects from that. The Parks and Recreation Department has been looking at doing more tree planning and making sure that we have an equitable way of funding that.

I'm the chair of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. So it's been a topic that we have been discussing some, but it also addresses just where we fund resources generally. That’s why I picked Horton Park for our meeting today. When I first became chair of the advisory board, I had already been to this park a couple of times, and the first thing I noticed was the poor condition of the blacktop for playing basketball. If you dribble a basketball, it's going to go in a different direction. And honestly, it's my belief that if a park doesn't look like a park, people don't treat it like a park. You'd see a few beer bottles throughout the grass, cigarettes. There weren't really people playing out here. We have the investment that's being made to turn the old Melrose library into the EnVision Center.

I thought it was incredibly important that we focus also on the other resources here that the city is responsible for. Being chair of that board really doesn't give me much power or authority, but it does give me the ability to set the agenda. The director asked where I wanted to have my next meeting. I chose this park because I had talked about it once before, but I thought it'd be important that everyone who served on the board with me and the director himself be forced to look at it directly.

Consequently, the following spring the city received ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] funds that were going to be allocated towards Parks and Recreation. This is one of the basketball courts that they said they're going to fix. It was supposed to have already been done by [September 29]. It should have been done probably a month ago. We had a meeting on Tuesday, and the update that I got is that it might be done by the end of October, maybe a little bit later. And that's an issue that they're just facing.

That's a long walk around to saying we need to invest our resources equitably across the city. There are parts of the city that do not get the same attention as others or at least have not historically. I can't [right] the past of what happened from prior administrations or priorities that Council took at the time. But the priorities that I put in place can hopefully be used to address these things.

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

There's only so much we can do on Council. The Dillon Rule says that anything that Council is going to do has to come from the authority that's granted to us from the state.

Priorities is a word I've been using a lot today. Priorities and what we focus on doing is where we can best address issues like climate change.

When I moved to Old Southwest, the first week there, I met a neighbor. We had a delightful conversation in a community garden, right by my home. They said, “well, I'm going to have solar panels put on my roof, but I've got to go through the whole city process to do it.”

I said, “where's your house?” He pointed it out to me.

All of [Old] Southwest is in a historical district. So anything that they want to get approved, if that's a change to the outdoor structure, it has to be approved by the Architectural Review Board. I told this neighbor, “You're going to be denied.”

So I asked my neighbor to go ahead and apply. Go ahead and let the Architectural Review Board deny that. They're following their rules. Don't take it personally. That's just how their rules are written. And then we'll start meeting and coming up with an appeal to City Council.

We appealed to Council and I was delightfully surprised. I think it was unanimous. The ... people who were present voted to approve the appeal. That is just one example of something that we could do to address climate change. I would like to see a Department of Sustainability be formed that would be separate and moved out from under another department. I believe it's under General Services right now. I think that they would be much more effective, given the money that's coming in from the federal government to incentivize transitioning to renewable energy, but something that we can move towards.

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 support the current city manager, Bob Cowell. Why is that?

That forum had a very interesting format, where we were only given the opportunity to say “yes,” “no” or “maybe” to any question that was put forward. The original thought that was going through my head when the question was asked was “maybe.” But, honestly, it was the forcefulness of which I heard people on the stage, who said “no,” and reflecting on the position that I've had as a government employee, especially during the pandemic, it has not been easy for anyone in government.

I think he's done a fair job and I'll probably get some criticism for that. But I also believe it's the City Council's duty to really push the city manager to change if they want him to. If they don't like something, it should really be their prerogative to change that behavior. If there's something so egregious and wrong, they should be in a position to change the city manager.

Is this the city manager that we need for the future of Roanoke? Maybe not. I don't know what his intentions are, what Council's intentions are. But at some point, I think it'd be important that we have somebody new for the council to go in a different direction. The city manager has done a fair job, but he's probably not the person we need forever. I can only imagine how long that will be before changes.

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, not that I'm aware of. Once I had Carilion send me one of those civil lawsuit things claiming I had not paid a bill, and this was years and years ago. And honestly, that came in the mail before the bill did. I think it was dealt with? I don't even think it's something on my record, but no, no, no.

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

Yes. I think I learned a lot. The question itself, though, it makes me reflect on some of the work that we're doing with Senator Edwards’s office related to barrier crimes. There are people who have made mistakes in their lives, who have been charged and convicted of crimes, but who have served their time and, under certain policies set forth in Virginia code, are ineligible to work in certain jobs.

The situation that was brought to mind for us was an individual who's working in a janitorial position, who has been working for a company for quite some time, whose conviction was decades ago. But because it involves drugs in some way — and while the company wants to promote them and move them into a position where they can be paid more, and they think there'll be a benefit to the company — they are ineligible under the law to do so.

It's even a movement years ago about banning the box, banning the question on applications for people. I think what the former councilman was charged and convicted of is unfortunate. Even prior things in their past, anybody running for office should have the same eligibility to serve as anybody else who didn't have convictions. If it wasn't brought up during the campaign as much as it should have been … they were elected to serve and it's important that we honor those institutions that elected them into office. Just as we're following them now, in the processes that have removed them from office. Could you repeat the question?

Have you ever been charged with a crime, including a traffic violation?

I've had some traffic violations and honestly, I did learn from them. I did driver improvement. And I've learned from that and not had an infraction since. That's very important.

I'm sure readers might be curious after you spoke about banning the box. Is that the most you've been charged with?

I have been charged with something before, which has been completely stricken from my record. I stand by my innocence and that, ultimately, I was found innocent of that. And through that process, my innocence was so strong in it that the entire record itself has been expunged from the system. I have a certified letter from the Virginia State Police saying that it has been.

It was a very unfortunate situation that I ended up in, involving a prior relationship and some mental health issues of the person that I was with. It took this entire incident for me to have a true wake-up call and evaluate: Is this a person that I want to continue to be in a relationship with? Or am I going to need to worry for my life in the future? So ultimately, I'm no longer with that person. I'm now engaged to someone that I feel safe and secure with in a very happy relationship. And I'm thankful that the court system saw the facts there. And what was a misunderstanding and something originally put on me, I was ultimately cleared.

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

Once, years ago. In my profession, I need to be places very quickly on a schedule that's ever changing. For the people who have to rely on Valley Metro, I wish it could be more reliable. I'm trying to do a few things now to encourage more people to use it.

A lot of those improvements are going to rely on our neighbors and our partners in order to make them happen. There have been efforts in the past to try to expand our bus routes into the county and into further places. But right now, my understanding is that Valley Metro has such a shortage of drivers that they've even had to cut back hours on Saturdays and they have a lot of bus drivers who are working double shifts just to get the job done.

I would like to see the pilot program that's going to go in place. I'd like to see the data collected there. And what we could do to further expand hours for people that are working second and third shifts. Ride Solutions has programs that look at doing carpools to help people in these situations.

Knowing government work, it will not be done in the two years that I have before I would need to be reelected, if I'm successful this November. I would say by the end of my first full term.

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?

Encourage more economic activity, and Roanoke should be attracting more businesses [offering] good-paying jobs. When it comes to the city budget, I would like to see us paying personnel more generally, but I would like us to be employing more people in the city. I think the city is a reliable employer that provides good benefits and its ultimate job is to provide services to the people that live here. The more jobs that we have available and the more people living here who work in them. It's a system that feeds back into itself.

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

My philosophy is that I'm against it. I do not necessarily support reducing green space as a first means of developing more areas. I think we have a large amount of abandoned buildings in Roanoke and vacant property that could first be redeveloped. When it comes to park property, I am not speaking for the board, but I personally advocate against getting rid of park property or public property in general. I don't see the city really ever making efforts to purchase more property. Once public land leaves public hands, rarely it ever returns to it or is regained.

Sometimes trees do have to be clear-cut for development, and when it does have to be done I think it'd be important that we require that a certain amount of tree cover be put back in on those properties. Development is important for the growth of the community. But we need to be careful about what spaces we're choosing and that that development serves a greater purpose for what our community needs.

You serve as chair of the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, which we've spoken about. What specific changes would you like to see to the city's parks network, and if elected to Council, would you advocate for an increase in funding to the department, which has an $80-million maintenance backlog?

You mentioned the $80-million maintenance backlog that the city faces, and I will tell you that that does not include all the projects that we actually need to work on. Those were just the ones that have been identified as priorities in the master plan, like this basketball court that needs to be resurfaced.

First and foremost, I would advocate for money and for more personnel. Our parks department receives 2 percent of the city's revenue in order to meet their mission, which is the reason people choose Roanoke. I would like to see that increase to 3 percent. In a recent forum I said that I'll settle for 2.69 percent, and that's based on an analysis of some other localities. But all that money is going to have to come from somewhere. I'm not sure necessarily where.

One of the areas that we're lagging in, and I do not fault the Parks Department for this, is our historical structures. The Blackwell House in Fishburn Park has been mentioned a couple of times in recent City Council meetings, over the neglect that it's faced throughout the years. Honestly, just Parks has not had the funding. And it's something that I wish they were able to address. But these properties have been neglected for so long that they may be getting to a point that we might not be able to rehabilitate them and use them in positive ways. It's just very unfortunate.

I do know fixing the Fishburn Mansion, the Mountain View Recreation Center, is one of the commitments that the city will address. But they still need a substantial amount of funds in order to do that. That property was given to the city under the prerequisite that if it were ever going to be gotten rid of, it had to be restored. I don't think we'll ever get there, nor do I think we should ever get rid of it.

I would like to see the Parks board changed to have a City Council member on it. Just having a representative in the room to let us know what's happening at Council and to be able to take our information directly to them, I think will have a stronger impact on our outcomes.

We've seen where the City Council has responded and listened to concerns and requests we've had about having more tree planning. While the request did include maintenance, we didn't necessarily get money for the maintenance. Our urban forestry department is struggling. They were originally separate but were absorbed by the Parks and Recreation Department more than a decade ago. Both departments have had their budgets cut so severely. I'd like to see that increase.

My understanding is that we have more trees than we're able to manage and that urban forestry is really in a position of just being able to respond. At some point in the past, we had an entire team with people whose jobs were dedicated to just watering trees. And we don't have that right now. We're not able to keep up with maintenance.

Trees Roanoke wanted to apply for more funds to plant trees. And they were advised to maybe hold off until another funding cycle because, if we plant more, we're not sure that we're in a position to properly maintain them.

What are you reading currently?

Just the news. I'm sure your readers are going to love that. I wish I had time for much of anything else. And this will be my reminder to pick up another book in the near future.