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 Keller, a Republican, Sanchez-Jones, a Democrat, and Bowers, an independent.
Keller, 55, is a certified financial planner. A resident of Summit Hills in Northwest Roanoke, Keller ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2020.
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 think that there are a lot of reasons. The first reason is that we've had essentially one-party rule for the past 20 years. And there's a lot of talk of diversity today. That's kind of a buzzword that's out there. And one of the things I like to look at and think about diversity, is diversity of viewpoints. It's having different ideas and having different ways of looking at things that maybe other people haven't looked at before. Or maybe it's an opposing view that brings some good points here. So I think we need some diversity of viewpoints on City Council.
Second, why should they vote for me? Well, I bring a broad background in many areas. Sometimes candidates are one-issue people. I have a lot of background. I have a background in theology and religion. I'm an ordained minister. I serve the Hope of Israel Congregation. I also have a background as a teacher. I was a teacher for four years, taught mostly ninth-graders. That's where my hair went, teaching ninth-graders for four years. I taught computer science, math. One year I taught history. So I have a background as a teacher, and also as working as a certified financial planner. Understanding when you make a law or change an ordinance or adjust taxes a certain way, sometimes there are unintended consequences. And you actually can make things worse by doing something that no one ever thought of.
I think of somebody like Joe McNamara, who is the only CPA [certified public accountant] in the House of Delegates, and he's worked with fixing some things for Virginia, and I appreciate that. And I would like to be a person who has a professional financial background, to look at the issues and the financial side of things here in Roanoke, and make certain that they're actually going to do what they're going to do, and not make it make problems worse.
And also, I believe I can get along with just about anybody. I collect and restore classic cars. I can talk to people about cars all day long. I have a background working with people in the congregation, all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of issues. And so I get along with reasonable people all day long, on the left and the right. And I feel that I can bring people together. Even though we may disagree on policy, we can still be friends. And I think it's important to separate the personal attacks — and I don't do that — personal and then policy. I've seen so many personal attacks and you know, this terrible politics. I don't like that at all.
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?
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. So this is a two-part question. First, 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?
Well, let's talk about pay and compensation. If we look at Roanoke City and surrounding localities, Roanoke City is less than Roanoke County. In fact, Roanoke City teachers make more at $48,000 per year than do police officers and firefighters. So yeah, we're thankful for pay increases. I'm thankful for that. Frankly, it's not enough.
I would increase the starting salary for fire and police to $55,000. Because there's a higher risk here than in other localities. There's more crime. And if you're a police officer, where are you going to go? Where you’re more likely to get shot and get lower pay, or to somewhere else where it's less, risk higher pay? It's not rocket science.
Another big factor that I’ve spoken of — and I've talked to police officers, I've talked to firefighters about this — is the fact that Roanoke City has a pension plan that is a standalone plan. It's not compatible with any other localities in Virginia. And what that means is that let's say you worked in a different city, say Norfolk, and you want to move to Roanoke for your family and say you're from the area. And we said we'd like to have you as part of the Roanoke City Police Department. And you've spent 10 years in Norfolk as a police officer. You come to Roanoke. There's a problem. Roanoke City's pension does not apply to you until you've worked here for five years, and then you're vested in Roanoke City. If we were to convert our public safety, police and fire to the VRS [Virginia Retirement System], we could then recruit you in your 11th year starting with the city. Be part of the plan, continue that pension plan without having to start all over again. So we have a problem recruiting.
I would also say that another factor is respect. Respect has to start with City Council. And sure, City Council: ‘We respect the police, we respect these things.’ Yet you ask them, you know, how many of you were marching with protesters in May and June of 2020? How many were marching the protesters who were talking about defunding the police burning down the police station? How many were doing that? And that, frankly, is demoralizing.
And there's a lot of discontent, a lot of inequity, in the pay scale for both fire and police. And we need to fix that. I think my background as a certified financial planner can bring them to the table. Let's revise these things. Let's look at this. It’s not rocket science. Those who have more experiences or greater responsibility should receive more pay.
Second, what other options — besides increasing the police force — do you see as available to City Council for addressing the root causes of crime?
Yeah, I like your words there, the root causes of crime. You know, what you're really seeing is really kind of an outflow of the root causes. And what are the root causes? I think it's a breakdown of many things. One, it's a breakdown of the traditional family. You know, there's a lot of criticism today of traditional families, a husband and wife, children. You know, it seems pretty simple. But there's a lot of criticism of that. And you look at if you were to interview gang members, if you were to interview mass shooters, if you were to interview rapists, murderers, almost inevitably, there is a a lack of a father in the home, lack of a father figure.
I think a second factor, and I come from a faith community here, as a faith leader, is really a breakdown or a lack of Judeo-Christian values. Years ago, even if you were not a believer or a Christian or a Jewish person, everyone understood that God's watching. There’s no video camera here. But God's watching. He knows what I'm doing. There's accountability there. Everyone could pretty much rattle off the Ten Commandments. Nowadays, this big survey, how many of the Ten Commandments can you quote from memory? And just in different age groups, you'd be surprised how many people— it's amazing. You know, God, in his infinite wisdom, gave us Ten Commandments, we can actually number them on our hands. It's not like 613. It's not this 80,000 pages of IRS code that nobody can quite figure out. God made it so simple. So I think the breakdown of the family, the lack of faith in God and the Judeo-Christian values, has had a major effect on crime and so many other problems that we have today. It’s probably overwhelming.
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?
I think the first thing is to acknowledge that these things happened. We cannot whitewash, we cannot revise, history. What happened, happened. I'm Jewish. And there are those in the world today who say that the Holocaust never happened. Like, really?
And there are those today who might say, Where’s the racism? We don’t see it. It never happened. I think what we need to do is to learn from our mistakes. We have to learn from them. And as a former history teacher, we have to be honest and not sugarcoat the problems that we had. You can also realize, Well, we've come a long way from that. We've come a long way. We've made amazing progress in this country, in the city, and we need to be very thankful for that.
So we need to learn from our mistakes, and we can become better because of that. And, you know, I have been on the receiving end of some anti-Semitism over the years. I tell you what, one of the things I have learned is really forgiveness. You know, people don't understand. There are times when I want to become angry what people say or do about different groups of people. But you realize, you know what? It's about forgiveness. And it's hard sometimes to go, Hey, you know, they don't understand this. It's okay. Let's move on. And maybe they'll learn.
On Council, how would you advocate for mitigating the impacts of climate change at the local level?
That's a great question. What I would encourage people to do is kind of what I do. I bike to work four days a week. Biked today, biked last night, rode home in the dark with my headlight on. You know, it's all doing our part. God has given us the Earth. Not that we worship the Earth, but rather that we are stewards of the Earth. We are to take care of things. We are to take care of the animals, the Creation.
So I think on a local level, making certain that there's less pollution, making certain that people aren't dumping things. It bugs me when I see litter on the side of the road. I see whole trash cans sometimes on the side of the roadway. I’m like, don’t people have enough common sense or respect to keep your trash in their car and when you get home you can put in your own trash can? I mean, it just bugs me. I see lots of it while biking and have to avoid it sometimes, if it’s in the middle of the road.
So I think on a local level, it's being a steward for water, of our air. It's trying to do those things that maybe reduce our travel, you know, our carbon dioxide emissions and these type of things. Doing the small things, and I think if we all do small things, it has a cumulative effect and can do great things.
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?
Here again, let's talk about policy. I don't really know him personally. The city manager is, like you said, in charge of basically executing or carrying out the vision and the directives of City Council. It has its good and bad. And what I've seen from our current city manager: even recently, with the firefighters coming before City Council, and the city manager pretty much getting angry, reprimanding the firefighters over the new pay scale that went into effect.
I don’t think that's right. You know, the city manager works for the people ultimately. And as leaders, working for the people, we need to remember that our goal is to serve the people, not to rebuke them, not to criticize them, but to serve them. You know, that's servant leadership. That’s what it's all about.
I've also seen, just to give you an example, back a couple weeks, the bulk trash pickup has been non-existent in our entire neighborhood. My wife’s had to call numerous times the past few weeks just to pick up the entire neighborhood. And I'm like, where's the service there? It's like, the city manager who's kind of in charge of all this somehow is dropping the ball with these kinds of things. And these are just simple services.
Taxpayers are paying a separate fee for solid waste. They should expect things to be picked up on time. The bulk to be picked up reliably. Because frankly, when all these sofas and mattresses are on the curb, by main roads even, it looks like a trash heap. I mean, I'm not proud of my city when I see all this junk here like Man, if I were a visitor, ‘This looks like a dump here.’ And so the citizens deserve better service in that way. And so I think the city manager has a lot of improvement. I wish him all the best. And I just see so much that is overlooked. City Council has approved what the taxpayers are paying for, but the work’s not getting done. And I think we can do better.
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, no. I'm a certified financial planner. And if I actually had any type of problem I would have to disclose that to the state corporation commission. It would be very public information. And as a financial professional, I'm held to a higher standard than the average person because I'm giving financial advice, I’m giving investment advice, I’m giving tax advice. I mean, it'd be very hypocritical for me if I had declared bankruptcy last year. And what kind of financial advisor is this guy? And so I do not.
And second part of that, have you ever been charged with a crime including traffic violations? If so, what did you learn from that experience?
I had one speeding ticket in my entire life. When I was in college. It was actually in North Carolina, when it went from 65 to 55. I didn't notice. I was driving through and I had a ticket and it cost me like maybe $50 which was a lot of my back in the, it must have been the ’80s. And I really learned from that to pay attention to the signs. You know, not only is it unsafe, but it also can be expensive. And there's actually a reason for those speed changes because the conditions have changed and therefore my driving speed should also change. So I learned from that and I've never had a ticket or anything ever since that time.
Have you ever ridden on Valley Metro?
One time. Years ago, I received some bus passes. I think it was from Ride Solutions. I'm a registered rider with Ride Solutions. They were giving out these VIP bus passes. And so I took it one time from Melrose to downtown a number of years ago.
What specific improvements do you think the city should make to its public transportation system, and by when should those changes be completed?
My daughter rode for the first time two weeks ago, and I had to help her, show her how the system works, show her maps. Went through this whole process of teaching her how to ride Valley Metro to go to school. The first thing that they need to do is have an app that's easy to use. I downloaded the app, Valley Metro, and found out I kept looking at it, ‘No service.’ It was Valley Metro of Phoenix, Arizona. I’m like, give me a break. They really need to get their name right. It only works for the Smart Way Bus. It doesn’t work for the regular bus line.
I think they are rolling that out.
They are, but I’m like, Here I am trying to teach my daughter how to use the system. I ended up printing out a map and showing her, this is where the bus goes. We ended up using Google Maps because it had more accurate information as to when the times were.
Actually, I attended a bus rider group, BRRAG [Bus Riders of Roanoke Advocacy Group], a couple weeks ago, just to learn more about it. And it just seems that it's very hard to use. The system's hard to use for an outsider. If someone doesn't ride the bus often, it just seems like a harder thing to do. To figure out when the bus is going to be there, how to go, how do you pay for this?
And the other factor and I had talked to a lot of bus riders when they were talking about the proposed bus station move. And what I did, I would actually stop at bus stops, I was riding my bike, and talk to the people who are going to get on the bus and ask them what do you think about the bus service? And just about everyone gave me a thumbs down as far as the service. And they said taking an hour and a half to get from home to your work is unacceptable. And that's one of the reasons a lot of people don't use it. I mean, would I take an hour and a half extra to get here? It takes me 20 minutes to bike here from my home.
I'm not certain what the exact solution is. But we can kind of see what the problems are. It takes too long. It's hard to figure out. The app is almost useless. And if we can work this and make it easy to use, less painful, we'll see increased ridership and that may go back to our climate sustainability type thing, where there’s less driving. It takes the same way as diesel fuel for a full bus or an empty bus. So let’s have people riding these things instead of just spitting out diesel fumes.
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?
Poverty is definitely an issue here. We see it all around us. One, it comes back to education. Education is not just about going to college. Education is learning skills as well. And I have five children and two of them are working in blue-collar jobs. One’s a plumber, one’s a heating and air conditioner installer. And I think high schools can have a better focus on career and technical education. Because if you have a skill, rarely will you be unemployed and you might not be wealthy but you'll never lack food for your table. A plumber, electrician, carpenter these types of things. So I think there needs to be a focus on the skills, on trades, on vocations. I think having jobs, a good education, which leads to good jobs, is going to help with poverty. And that's one of the best things. Ronald Reagan once said, The best social program is a job. And I agree with that statement.
What's your philosophy on residential or commercial developments whose construction would involve reducing green space, such as clear cutting trees or eliminating parkland?
It’s always a balance of open space versus developed space. Whether it's putting in a development or a mall or shopping center or putting in homes. It's always the balance. And it seems like there's always somebody opposed to it or you get flack from both sides: ‘We need more affordable housing.’ ‘We don't want to have it in our neighborhood’. You know, this Not In My Backyard mentality.
So it's a matter of balancing the open space, which I love. I love the greenways and I love parks. These types of things. It's great to get out and breathe fresh air. You know, we also have to realize we have a lot of people here, we need housing, we need businesses, we need these types of places as well. So it's balancing those two. And there’s not a simple way of doing it, except the process I think is important to listen to the citizens. What are their concerns about proposed development? What are the problems here? And then listen to the developers. Why are they interested in doing this? And finding solutions that work for both sides. So it's a win-win. And if you come up with a win- win, that's the best solution.
The next question is uniquely tailored to you. You are a certified financial planner, and I’m told have gone through the city’s budget closely to identify items that could be eliminated to save money. If elected to Council, what would you seek to cut and why?
Well, the first thing on Council that I would do is to go through the budget. It’s 153 pages, to be exact. The problem with the budget as I read it right now, is that there's not a lot of detail in the budget. It's almost like you need hyperlinks to go to, What exactly is this $5 million going towards? Is it going towards this or that?
As I look at the budget, there's not as many specifics, as I would like to see. I'm sure it exists somewhere in the finance office. I'm sure it does. But what's available publicly does not give all the detail. I would like to see line items where, OK, we're writing checks to this, we're buying this amount. For example, $25,000 solar trash cans like the ones outside the building here, who uses these? I mean, are we getting our money’s worth for $25,000 solar trash cans? I don't know. A city needs to focus on things that only a city can do. Fire, police, roads, schools. These types of issues are what cities must focus on. And the budget needs to reflect that.
In 2013, 2014 I was part of the citizens budget academy. This is when David Bowers was mayor and we spent the entire spring, almost every weekend, working with the city staff learning the budgeting process. And to me it was eye-opening, how they have these offers and how they structure the budget and they kind of go through this whole process.
The city's budget, like the state budget, must be balanced. It's required by law. I wish the federal government would pay attention. So I learned a lot about the workings, how the budgets are developed. And so it really is in the details. These broad categories are great, they look fine. But what I really want to see when I'm on Council is I want to see the details. I want to see the details underneath these categories of where it's actually going. And that's probably thousands of pages I would anticipate.
What are you reading currently?
I read all kinds of books. I've read books that are for this, against that. I've read books about the death penalty from Sister [Helen] Prejean, all kinds of books, all kinds of topics. I feel that makes me a better person, seeing their perspective. And it actually helps me a lot.
I’m reading a book right now by Dr. Ben Carson. It's called [A More Perfect Union: What We the People Can Do to Reclaim Our Constitutional Liberties.] He's going basically step by step through the reading of the preamble of the Constitution.
It's really enlightening, Dr. Ben Carson has an amazing story growing up in poverty but his mother insisted that he go to school, and she sacrificed incredibly, to make sure he was in school, that he was there on time, that he read books. And he ends up being one of the preeminent neurosurgeons, neurologists, in the world and separating conjoined twins and all these things. Way above my pay grade.