Roanoke City Council Candidate Preston Tyler on Freezing Rents, Satellite Police Stations, and Democrats' Reactive Outlook

Preston Tyler, an independent, 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 Tyler, an independent, Volosin, a Democrat, and Baugess, a Republican.

Tyler, 44, is the pastor of Hill Street Baptist Church and a funeral attendant at Serenity Funeral Home. He recently moved to the Eastgate area of Northeast 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.

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

Well, I'm a voice for the people. I'm a people person. As a pastor, you deal with all types of walks of life. Upper class, middle class, the poor, Black, white, all nationalities. And you have to bring them all together with the Word of God. And that's what we do here at Hill Street. We're inclusive. We don't care where you come from. God loves all of us. And so as I speak for them as I deal with people at church, I'm the same way with the city. And we do a lot of things in the city, community-wise, in the city. Hill Street does a lot of things especially in the Washington Park and Lincoln Terrace area. So the same way I lead my people, I want to lead the city. So I just want to be the voice of them.

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?

As a pastor, yes. And when you say personally, when it affects my congregation, it affects me. I’ve had two that I've had to eulogize myself due to gun violence. They were nephews and grandsons of my members. And so I see them every Sunday, and so that's a personal thing. Because you've got to find the right words to encourage them. And then on top of that, the aftermath of it. You know, I have a member who raised her grandson right here at this church and he, you know, he strayed away as teenagers do. And, you know, he ended up getting murdered, and I had to eulogize him.

But to see her, the grandmother, and she hugs me every Sunday. She says, ‘You check up on me. You call.’ She said the only way I can make it is because of the support of the church and support of her pastor and that's why, you know, it's personal to me. And I've got some things I’m going to try to put in place to prevent those, you know, acts of gun violence and all. So it has personally affected me.

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?

Yes. I heard last night [at a candidate’s forum], and I've got to do some research, that Lynchburg still pays more. [Editors note: True] And if that is the case, I think we need to equal our playing paying field. Roanoke is too rich of a city to not be in competition with cities around us, you know. So even though we've moved the ball, we moved the needle, and I've talked to Chief Roman and he's told me the same thing, ‘I'm happy with the package,’ but at the same time, he's also said that he's lost some police officers because you can make $90,000 driving a Walmart truck. So, you know, maybe we need to up to Lynchburg and wherever surrounding so that we're equal to them.

And then on top of that, the retirement package. You know, the city has their own, but then there's the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police] one that's different than that one. And I know FOP because my daddy was a police officer in Charlottesville, and that's the retirement he has. Even though the retirement here in the city is competitive, I think maybe we need to look at the option of the other one. And maybe they can pick one, you know, or have the option, you know.

And then I also heard [from candidate Jamaal Jackson] that maybe if you sign a contract, you got to sign a five year contract. You know, you can’t leave and go to a new police station or police organization until you've been here five years. And I thought that was a great idea because, a lot of times we get the signing bonus, we get the training and then we're gone because we can get paid higher somewhere else. Maybe we need to have that in the contract. You know, let's not put all our resources and let me just tell you, when I used to work for Kroger, that was one of the things that used to just blow my mind and I used to get upset because I would train a person. I was head meat cutter, so I would train them how to cut meat. I train them and then all of a sudden they go to Farm Fresh, or they go on to Food Lion. Well, guess what, you can get more money at Food Lion and Farm Fresh. And it just irked me that I did all this training, I trained you to be here, and then you [go] somewhere else. So I think that's the way we should do it with the police officers.

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

We know where the crime is. But we don't have anybody there. And my suggestion is, why don't we do satellite police stations? You know, we know where the crime is, okay? So if we have a police presence there, I think that would deter, or if it does happen, we have more of a quicker reaction time than we have now. Sometimes, you know, the body will lay there. And when I say the body, somebody’s shot and it takes a good minute before the police officers are there. Well, if we're already in satellite stations, we’ll be there quicker, you know, maybe we can catch the suspect. And then if we catch them quickly, then the next time they'd be like, No, I don't think we need to do this because there's a heavy police, you know, police officers here.

We do a lot of thing reactive. And the city is great for that. We have a Reset Team that goes and knocks on the doors, after the gun violence has happened or after the act of violence has happened. But we don't have anything proactive. And I think proactive. We have to have our police in the neighborhoods, especially where the crime is, to walk the streets. Not just one. Two at a time, that way somebody has their back. My daddy, like I've said 100 times and I keep saying it, was a police officer for 30-some years. And he walked some of the projects in Charlottesville, but he did it with somebody else. And everybody in the projects knew who those two officers were and in return they knew who the people were. He’d go into the grocery store. ‘Hey, how are you doing, Officer Tyler?’ I’m like, ‘Daddy, how do you know them?’ Well, because he worked in patrol. I don't think we do enough of walking the beat and walking the neighborhoods. So I think we have to do proactive things instead of reactive.

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, I mean, as an African American, you know, I have dealt with racism and that's something that whether we like it or not, it's going to be here. Some folk are embedded, or in-bredded [sic, laughs], with it. And the only thing we can do is do the inclusion piece. And that includes everybody of all walks of life. And that's why I say I want to be a voice for the people. And it doesn't make a difference if you're white, it doesn't make a difference if you're Black, doesn't make a difference if you’re brown, yellow. You could be purple.

But I think, you know, if we look at people as equals, and we treat people as equals, we’ll go further than what we had in the past. We just did the lynching monument, and that was a great piece to remember what happened, and see how far we've come from that, you know. So I say that if we just keep doing, we keep plugging, we keep pushing, we're in the right direction, but it's a little more we can do. And that's why I say we just have to keep including everybody, even transgenders [sic], even gays. It doesn't make a difference. You know, my pastoral is getting ready to come out. We're all God's children, and that's something that we have to really be strong on, and, you know, just tackle it.

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

Well, we have to do it through the legislation. I mean, that's where we get the money from. And I would push hard to get that money from the state level to come to the local level to help with that. I would be very advocating to get those monies to help with climate change. That’s the only way we can do it, through the state level.

Any specific ideas for how to deal with it?

Just petition. You know, have conversations with [Delegate] Sam Rasoul, have conversations with [Senator] John Edwards, and see where they’re at on it, you know, and just push for it. Lobby if we have to, you know, to get those. Sometimes you got to go outside the box and do things in order for it to come back to the city level, local level.

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?

Let me be as political as I can be. Bob Cowell and I don't see eye-to-eye when it comes to the city. I have had meetings with Bob Cowell and have asked him about more teen centers to give our kids something to do. I'm one of them types that if you don't give them something to do, idle mind is the devil's workshop, and we're seeing that. When kids could be doing arts and crafts, playing basketball, whatever. They're playing with guns. They're on their phones watching TikTok and, and when they watch TikTok, they see things and they have no business in.

Well, that time that they're watching TikTok, they could be doing something at the teen center. I proposed to him to take some of these abandoned buildings or even like the Burlington Coat Factory that's getting ready to move from that location to where it is now, off Hershberger, to Tanglewood [Mall]. That's a great building. That's a huge building. That's a one-stop shop that we could, you know, make a teen center and be done. You know, it's right in the midst of some schools. You know, the buses could drive them over. And Bob Cowell looked at me like, you know, ‘Well, I'll get back to you.’ Well, he hasn’t got back to me. So that's the part I don't like, is that his vision is not a vision to grow Roanoke. And I think that's what we need here in Roanoke. We need to grow it. We need to make it better. It's a great place, but it can be better. And I think that his direction is just not the right direction for our city, especially when it comes to our youth.

Great guy. Just not in favor of the direction he’s going.

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?

Not that I know. No, I don't. You know, I pay my bills. They may be late, but I pay you. So, no. I pay my people, if I borrow or anything like that. So that's something you won't be able to dig up on me.

And have you ever been charged with a crime — including traffic violations? If so, what did you learn from that experience?

I've had a parking ticket. Actually, my last parking ticket was downtown, and it was in a fire zone but the tree branch was covering it up. So I didn't see it. But it made me more aware, you know.

With any conviction or any crime that you do, you learn from it, or any mistake that you make. You try to learn from it and not do it again. And that's something that I've learned in my life, as a pastor, as a parent, as a husband. You make mistakes, and you try to learn from them so that you don't do them again.

Have you ever written on Valley Metro?

Yeah. It wasn’t often.

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

Well, I look at it like this: I've not heard any concerns about Valley Metro, and I haven't really dug into it, as well. I think when they move from where they were to the current location, that was a bit of a hassle, but I understand the move. I understand what they were doing. But if any problems occur, yes, I would be open to listening and sitting down and make them as quickly as possible. I mean, some things are quick fixes. And then some things are long-term fixes. So if you’re talking about, like, a bus route doesn't stop at this point, well, that's an easy fix. Let's find out why it's not and what's the closest bus stop. So you know, stuff like that is small-term, but you just take them day by day, problem by problem.

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?

Well, minimum wages is one, raising the minimum wage. I think the problem is, is that the gap has gotten bigger, instead of smaller. It used to be a time where, you know, owners were making this and then the people underneath were close. But now that gap is really, you know. I was a labor union representative. And I saw that firsthand, you know, that, dealing with Kroger. Kroger was way up here, and then you had the bag boy making $5 an hour. Well, that's crazy. So we have to raise the minimum wage. I know we just did, but that's not enough.

And then as far as our apartments and rental, it should be a rental freeze. It should be, you know, based upon what is this person making, you know, not just say rent’s $1,500. Well, some people don't even make that in three weeks, you know, so you have to look at where you at, you know, and then at the same time, offer some grants, some some tax breaks, some breaks for if you make ‘this,’ there’s some help on the other end. Roanoke is a rich city. And I think we don't use the money where we should use it. I think we let it stay in the bank and grow interest and interest and then we give people raises, and all that good stuff, which is fine. But if we can help our people, let's put that money to where we can help our people.

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

I would not be in agreement with that. I think we have a lot of land that needs to be redeveloped and brought back to life before we do any of those things. Our green space, let’s keep that there. But where we have houses that are historical neighborhoods, that were great houses at one time, we can put some money in those houses, fix them up or tear them all the way down and build another one. You know, that should be the focus in Roanoke, not taking away but restoring what we already have. That's something that we need to do, is restore, rebuild, refurbish what we have. What made Roanoke the way it was now. That's what made the Star City, those places. So taking away? No, we don't need to do that.

This question is unique to you. We talked a bit before the interview about why you're running as an independent. You mentioned you've been a Democrat for a while. Can you elaborate why you're running as an independent and your thoughts on the current local Democratic party?

Well, I'll say this, I've been a Democrat all my life. But I think for the local level, the direction the party was going at, I just was not in favor of. And I like being independent because I don't have to vote party lines. I don't have to vote Republican. I don't have to always stand with the Democrats. But I can vote independently for the people. The people will have an independent voice, and that will be me. So that's my take on it. State level, national level, that's a different story. But local level, I just want to be independently for the people.

I just believe Democrats are being more reactive to problems instead of proactive. And I know you're going to write this and— I think, you know, even with the [Robert] Jeffrey’s piece, I think we could have been proactive with that instead of reactive. I think people knew what was going on. And instead of being the voice and speaking up and saying X, Y and Z, we just let it go. And then after it happened, we reacted to it. And I think that's a problem. I think that's not fair. Especially with a human being that's a part of your party, you should be trying to help him in the beginning, and not just throw them away at the end.

And not just Democrats, I think Republicans do it as well. And that's a problem with parties. When you get in trouble, we don't want to be bothered with you no more. That's not the right way of doing it. You know, you were good while things were good. When you make a mistake or you have problems, and then we throw you away. That's not the right way of doing it. I think we need to be proactive and that's something I've always said about me, I want to be proactive and trying to help before it gets to wherever it gets to.

What are you reading correctly?

The Bible. That's my main source. Now, I read the paper. You know, don't get me wrong. I read the paper. And I read how things are going on in the country and the state level and even in the local level. But I'm a fond believer and reader of the Bible.

[Right now I’m on] the book of Psalms. That’s where my Bible study is, and that's where I've really been diving into that, in the midst of King David getting in trouble. He always leaned on the Lord. And that's the piece that during this election, because you're going to have ups and you're going to have downs. And in this election, if I keep God first, everything's going to work out.