In advance of the June 21 Democratic primary for Roanoke City Council, The Roanoke Rambler is publishing interviews with each of the four candidates.
Councilman Joe Cobb, Terry McGuire, Councilwoman Vivian Sanchez-Jones and Peter Volosin are running as Democrats. The primary on June 21 — in which any registered voter can take part — will determine which three will go on to the Nov. 8 general election. The local Republican party has already picked their three candidates who will run in November: Dalton Baugess, Nick Hagen and Maynard Keller. Independents have until August to declare their candidacies.
The Rambler will be publishing interviews with the Republican and independent candidates as we get closer to the general election. In November, voters will pick three candidates for regular four-term terms and one candidate for a special two-year term to replace the seat vacated by former councilman Robert Jeffrey Jr. For now, these interviews focus on the competitive June primary.
This week, we sit down with McGuire about why he's running. (You can watch how we decided our publication lineup here!) Disclosure: The Rambler's founder is a tenant of McGuire's. This interview was conducted by contributor Alex McCarthy. McGuire, 39, works remotely as a senior legislative representative at the Washington D.C. office of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. This is his first run for elected office. He lives in the Old Southwest neighborhood.
These interviews are accessible to non-subscribers to promote civic engagement to the widest possible audience. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Why are you running to serve on Roanoke City Council?
I really love Roanoke and this area and southwest Virginia, and I want to help make it a better place to live, make it a safer, healthier, more sustainable city. In my day job, I work for a nonprofit environmental law firm on federal air pollution policy and work with community groups all over the country. And I see all of the time just how important it can be to have strong, progressive, forward-thinking — and at this point, frankly, in where we are with things — kind of visionary leadership, and kind of looking ahead to the future, and how that can just shift things and make stronger communities that are better able to influence their state and federal politics. And I really do believe that local politics are the most important for the average person. On a day-to-day basis, our local elected officials have a lot of power and responsibility over just how the city is run, our budget, the decisions that are made, where investments are made. And I don't think that we're doing a bad job, but I don't think that we're living up to our greatest potential. I think we could be doing a lot more.
If elected to City Council, what is the first ordinance you would seek to propose and why?
One of the things I've been calling for is the city to create a department of sustainability and environmental justice. Right now we have a sustainability coordinator. And actually, there's a new person in that role. She came over from stormwater. I have full confidence in her abilities. But if Roanoke is serious about advancing sustainability issues, and really growing our outdoor recreation economy, there is way more than one person can do. And I know this from working closely with Nell Boyle, who was the sustainability coordinator before, that there's just not enough capacity. So I think it should be a standalone department with a director, with staff and it should be under the city manager, within the office of the city manager. If I'm able to get that done without an ordinance, I would like to tackle urban heat. I think that we can do that via investments in urban forestry and Parks and Rec, and specifically, I'm interested in looking at a tree bill, and what are some of the ways that we can restore and expand the tree canopy, and how that connects with public health and looking at some of the health inequities that we have in the West End and Northwest and Southeast.
What are your top three priorities and why?
My top priority is, I would like to help the city connect the dots. We have siloed off environmental health and sustainability as this sort of, like, separate thing that's like one of many issues that the city is dealing with. And I think that that's an inaccurate or sort of unhelpful way of looking at what is really kind of an existential sort of issue for us. Like, we all need clean air, we all need clean water. We know that that is not the case depending on where you live in the city, how wealthy you are. Basically, your ZIP code determines a lot of your health outcomes in Roanoke, and a lot of other places. So connecting the dots between environmental health and public health is something that I would love to to help drive. I also think that we need to de-privatize, in terms of the second priority, some of the city services and roles that over the last so many years we have privatized. Our school bus drivers, our janitorial staff in our schools, our food service staff. I think that all of those positions should be public employees, Roanoke City employees, that have the same sort of access to the retirement plan, the Virginia retirement system. They're doing important work. They should be city employees, I think, and have all of those accompanying benefits. And then for the third, I think I would say, smart growth and kind of urban and environmental planning and design. In my mind, it's difficult to separate that out from public transportation and housing. So, how we build communities, and how and where we invest. Roanoke wants to build these village centers, something that we think we want to replicate, you know, see how well Grandin is doing, South Roanoke, Wasena. You don't have to go very far to see what the result of poor planning decisions look like. Like, go to Northern Virginia and go down to Asheville. If we're not being really thoughtful about how we design our communities and how we grow, then we're just going to lock ourselves into traffic congestion, air pollution, and at the end of the day, unhappier and less productive people.
What do you see as the most disappointing or frustrating action or inaction that Council has taken recently?
Well, there are a number of things. I was disappointed in the most recent [Fiscal Year 2023] budget that we didn't get. [Roanoke's Department of Parks and Recreation] submitted a supplemental request for six full-time employees to do after-school programming work, which I think is really important for a lot of reasons. I think providing safe, supervised opportunities for kids to recreate and socialize with their peers pays off in a lot of ways for our communities. So I think I was disappointed. I was glad to see that there were no cuts in the Parks and Rec budget. But I don't think that they made the kind of investments that I would like to see. The department still has a $70 million deferred maintenance list. So that's a huge problem. We're not going to dig out of that in one year, but I don't really see what the plan is to dig out of it.
I am disappointed that Council seems to be moving towards selling off more of our public lands to private interests and developers. This time around is the cottage in Fishburn Park, which is just kind of the latest example of the city seeming to find that it's OK to, for whatever reason, get rid of what I view is public land, public assets. I don't think that we're investing enough in the historic properties that we have within our parks. And that's part of what's going on there, is it's expensive to fix it up so they just want to get it out of their hair. What's to say in 20 years that won't be a Starbucks or a Sheetz or something like that, so I think that's really short-sighted and a mistake.
And then I was really glad to see, and this inspired me and was part of my inspiration in running, was feeling like there is a fragile smart-growth majority on Council, at least if you read the tea leaves of the 0 Brandon Avenue vote, which was rejected 4-3. It had previously been rejected unanimously. A number of Council members who previously opposed it, at least one comes to mind, flipped and voted for it this time around even though it was a worse project by sort of any objective measure in terms of environmental impact and traffic congestion impact. So I was glad to see that, but I was disappointed that it seems like there are people on Council who I sort of feel like, with the comprehensive plan, just sort of cherry pick when they want to abide by it. And I think we have a really good comprehensive plan, that had a decent amount of authentic public engagement. If we don't follow it, though, it's just words on paper, and that is what I think we are seeing with projects like that and others.
Roanoke operates on a weak mayor form of government, meaning that much power and authority rests with the city manager, which City Council hires and to whom City Council provides a vision and direction for the city. What sort of vision would you bring to Council?
Well, I think that's part of the problem, actually. I remind myself and I remind people, when I talk to them at the doors, like, what does City Council do? You know, first and foremost, they pass a budget, and they hire the city manager, and a couple of other employees. Those are kind of their big responsibilities. But, that said, the city manager works for City Council, and CityCouncil works for the voters of Roanoke. And it seems to me that the city council is just being reactive and responsive to what's put forward to them from the city manager.
To answer your question about what sort of vision would I bring, I think it's easy to sort of dismiss these as kind of buzzwords but, like, what is a more sustainable, more resilient community like? That's my vision. A more sustainable, resilient city. And what does that mean? That means a city where, again, your ZIP code and where you live doesn't determine the quality of the air that you breathe, or your likelihood of suffering from blood poisoning, or your access to a grocery store and fresh food, or your walking distance to a park, or do you even have sidewalks in your neighborhood, which many neighborhoods do not.
And then resiliency, I think that over the last year, we've sort of seen what disruptions in our society can look like coming out of the pandemic, like supply chain issues, inflation. I don't think we're ready — and this gets back to why I'm running — I don't think that we're preparing and getting ready enough for the future, which is probably going to be a lot more unstable and uncertain than the past. Because if you believe scientists, climate change is getting worse. We're not doing enough to address it. We're sort of on a fast track towards really bad impacts. So what happens in Roanoke, because of the way that just as a country, we have this very antiquated way of distributing electricity and powering our society, what happens when power goes out for two weeks in the middle of summer and it's like 100 degrees? People will lose their minds is what will happen, and you'll have a lot more of a problem that you know, 'Oh, well, I can't get my refrigerator. It's on backorder from China for two weeks.' Well, what happens when you just can't get a refrigerator from China?
So resiliency, to me, is connected to independence and a community's ability to support itself. If we sit around and wait and think that the state and federal government is going to always take care of us and protect us from whatever may come, then we're going to be screwed, because it's not going to happen. I think that we've increasingly realized that over the last four to six years. No one's coming to save us. It's up to communities to do what they can, understanding that we do still absolutely need help from our state and federal elected officials in government. But I just don't think we're ready for the future and whatever that may look like and I don't know what that may look like. It's sort of purely speculation that things will be more uncertain. I mean, we take for granted our access to freshwater, but go across the Wasena Bridge and look down. The Roanoke River's like two feet deep. It's actually a very shallow body of water. There's no guarantee that we'll have clean fresh water forever. So how are we thinking about that kind of conservation? How are we thinking about access to food? Are we growing enough food locally, to start trying to supplement our local food systems? And the answer is no, we're not. All of our food comes from, like, California and Peru.
So that's a long-winded way of saying, I think sustainability, resiliency and, you know, healthier communities. I think we are really not in a good place physically, mentally and emotionally. I don't think that we're doing really all that well, I think people are, a lot of people are, just getting by. And I think we deserve better than just getting by and to the extent that city council can help with that, I'd like to try.
As you talk with voters, have there been any recurring topics that have come up or have there been any kind of surprising feedback or topics that you've heard from them?
Well, I was a bit surprised at just how strong the anti-incumbency sentiments are running. People are really upset about the way the city handled the personal property tax issue. That has been brought up to me numerous times, and folks not really understanding why the city didn't do more to explore relief for taxpayers, like other jurisdictions, including Roanoke County, have done. So that's something that's come up a lot, people feeling like that was a bungled process, and I'm inclined to agree with them on that. Gun violence, and violent crime generally, is something that has come up in neighborhoods across the city as well that people are concerned about. And then traffic safety and unsafe bad driving actually comes up quite a bit. It takes different forms in different neighborhoods.
We have a rapid response section that will list some specific issues that have prompted controversy or close votes before the council recently, and for each one, say whether you would have voted for or against and why in just a sentence or two. We'll start with the sidewalk homeless camping ordinance.
Against. It's not a real solution.
0 Brandon Avenue.
Very against the proposal as it was submitted most recently and in 2017, as well. I think it's out of alignment with the comprehensive plan and goes against the very clear wishes of all of the neighboring communities and would make traffic a lot worse.
The new bus station.
Well, that's tricky, because I'm disappointed with the way that was handled and I would have liked to have seen the station closer to the train stop because we're talking about intermodal transportation. People should be able to get off the train and get on something else and not walk half a mile at night or in the 90 degree heat. I think that's going to be a problem. And I also think, it doesn't make sense to me that the city invested all of that money on restoring the historic facades, and now is just content to sort of throw that away. I guess I would say against, but I also really believe that we do need an updated, modernized intermodal transportation hub, so if that's the best that we were going to be able to get, I don't know, I think that's where it's really tough. And I totally hear the neighbors from that area who are really upset. I think that could have been done better.
And then the plastic bag fee.
Very much in support of it, but I think they bungled the rollout of that and didn't do their due diligence with public outreach. I think we probably should have been moving and should be moving towards getting rid of, banning, plastic bags altogether. But for that, I would have voted for the plastic bag fee, but I don't think Council did a good job with that rollout. And that was also something that, earlier on, caught my attention. I was like, 'Why is there no, do they not understand how you have to sort of do public outreach and let people know this is coming and get feedback and like not hand the bags out after the fact but get those bags into people's hands before?' So I would have voted for it and would have advised a much better public outreach and rollout.
And then a couple more off the wall questions to end with. If you were a building or landmark in Roanoke, what would you be and why?
I think it would be the Greenway, because it's sort of the great equalizer. It's open to everyone. It connects the city. It is multi-use, multi generational, it's accessible, and it gets people out in nature in a way that I think is really important, and again, accessible to people. And I think it's just one of the best things the city has done since I've been alive.
And then what's on your bedside table? What are you reading currently?
I actually have the 2017 or 2014 City Climate Action Plan that I was reading to try to get a handle on where we dropped the ball. The city's climate action plan expired in 2020, and it is 2022, so I'm interested in trying to help figure out what is going on there and how that process can be inclusive. This is something I hear all the time from people, they don't really feel heard. Like, there's authentic engagement, and I think that the climate action plan should be more than just how do we lower our greenhouse gases, but also how do we mitigate and adapt? Like, what kind of transportation decisions are we making, stormwater? Like, it should be a holistic, intersectional planning document.
Is there anything else that you wanted to add or that you think voters should know?
I want people to get out and vote, hopefully for me, but more than anything, it's really important that we talk to people about the upcoming election. It's been a long, long time. I don't know when we last had a primary for City Council races. It's been I think, at least 25 years, maybe longer. And we just recently moved our elections to November for the city races, so June primaries are kind of a new thing. A huge part of what I do at the doors is just letting people know that there is an election. I think we need to increase voter turnout, engagement in the city. I think we do that when people feel like they're a part of their community and they feel loved and wanted and that their voice matters. And I want people to know that, maybe as cheesy as it sounds, that they are loved and wanted and I think that we have a lot to be proud of, but we have a lot that we could do better. And I think people know that. If you are totally happy with the status quo and you wouldn't make any changes in the city, then I'm probably not your candidate. But if you think that we could do a better job and do a better job of outreach and engaging communities and connecting the dots and working outside of the silos and kind of thinking more about the future and what that might look like and how we can lift everyone's ship, then I hope you'll vote for me.