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 Sanchez-Jones, a Democrat, Bowers, an independent, and Keller, a Republican.
Sanchez-Jones, 62, is a student support specialist for Roanoke City Public Schools. A resident of the Wildwood neighborhood in Northeast Roanoke, Sanchez-Jones was appointed by City Council in October 2020 to fill the unexpired term of former councilwoman Djuna Osborne.
In the spring, we interviewed candidates running in a competitive open Democratic primary; Sanchez-Jones'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.
Why should people elect you to serve on Roanoke City Council?
Why? Oh, well, that's a good question. I have been an advocate for many people in my community, and I would like to continue being an advocate for 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?
Well, I've worked in the schools, and I know how crime has affected everybody. I was involved in a kidnapping outside of my house. I got involved, and my husband and I prevented the kidnapping. It happened in our front [yard]. And this was before the pandemic that just happened. So, you know, I see families being affected by gun violence, yes.
That had to have been very intense.
It was very intense. Because I'm sitting, having my morning coffee, and I hear screaming, and I looked out and I ran outside the door. I called my husband. This woman was yelling and the guy was dragging her into her car. He took the baby, ended up taking her baby to Pennsylvania, where the police found them later. So it was an ordeal. I didn't think about it twice. My husband didn't think about it twice. And the lady was pregnant, on top of that. It was not a good situation. So I don't regret it. Everybody says, ‘Why did you get involved?’ I say, ‘Somebody has to get involved,’ you know? I didn't think twice. I just thought about her being dragged away in a car and she was yelling for help.
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?
Recruiting and retention is a big one. And also, nowadays, people back, you know, my husband was a police officer. So was my father-in-law. In a lot of cities and a lot of towns, people don’t follow their parents’ footsteps, especially into law enforcement and fire careers. My nephew was a firefighter, you know, that legacy. Not anymore. We’re finding less and less that people want to follow in their, whatever trade their parents were, whether it's a police officer or a firefighter, or just any other trade.
Yeah. Do you think there's anything that City Council can do to encourage that?
All we have to do is continue to recruit and have mentorship programs. We just had some recruits graduate from the academy, probably seven or eight, but throughout the country, everybody's seeing a shortage in their police department. Everywhere. You name it, there's a shortage. For teachers, police officers, fire department, our trash collection. We’re even seeing shortages on that, and the pay is good. So it's something across the board.
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?
We also have to look at legislation, and we need support, we need parent engagement, because without the parents, we're going to see that we're losing a generation. And community policing. What I mean by community policing, just like I did, like we do around our neighborhood, keep an eye out for our neighbor. We have prevented break-ins across the street from us, because we are vigilant as to who belongs in our neighborhood, and what people are doing in our neighborhood, so if everybody just does their part. Good neighbors.
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?
Just recognizing our past is a starting point. It moves toward working and improving for the next generations. I like what Jordan Bell has been doing, going around in Gainsboro and giving that oral history. Different generations need to know, not only for African Americans, but for everybody in the city.
I remember when I was looking for a house, my realtor told me to stay away from Northwest. I love Northwest. I used to ride around the bus, I used to take the bus and it used to go to Northwest, and I loved all those four-square homes. I wanted to move to Northwest. She's like, ‘Oh, no, no.’ I didn’t understand why. I didn't know the history. I moved here in 2002 and I was looking for a house in 2003. So I didn't know why the realtor was steering me away from those communities. And even more, I live in Northeast. I found this house on my own.
On Council, how would you advocate for mitigating the impacts of climate change at the local level?
Well, we already started with the five-cent tax. It’s not really a punishment for the people, but it’s an option. It’s to deter the use of plastic bags. The last time I checked, I think we have collected about $70,000. Think about how many, you know, I did the math one time. It's a lot of bags.
Is there anything else you think the city can do?
Our electric vehicles, electric buses, which the city's going to get. I think it's two buses out there on order, but they've been backordered because of materials. I saw a proposed plan for a parking lot for Virginia Transformer. One of the things I asked him was to include the charging stations for EV vehicles. And they thought, ‘Oh my God, we didn't think about it.’ And that's what they're going to be doing. So it only makes sense. I also asked for trees: ‘Make sure your parking lot has trees.’ So when I met with them, they decided to have trees for the parking lot, because I'm tired of seeing all of these parking lots with no trees on them.
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?
Well, he listens. He is doing a great job in managing the city. And that's about it. I mean, he has done a lot. Think about all the recovery money that we have. We have the ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] funds, and making sure that everything was done. Our city has recovered. You know, we have more money in our reserves right now, so that's through good management.
Have you ever ridden on Valley Metro?
Yeah. I was a bus rider for about a year. My first job that I had here, I lived at Lake Creek Apartments. And I used to be out on King Street at 6:25 [a.m.] waiting for my bus to come. I didn't start my job until 8:30. So two hours of my day were out the window, because I had to transfer downtown. Then I would get onto Thirlane at 7:45 in the morning. And then I wasted another 45 minutes just sitting there and waiting for my shift to start. I even asked my boss if they would let me start at nine o'clock. But they said no, we hired you to start at 8:30. So if they had let me do nine o'clock, change my shift, then I could have left an hour later.
And I love my bus driver, we’re still in touch. I just saw her on Saturday. Because it was like a big family. Everybody knows each other. But that is hard. And, you know, coming from New York City where you have buses coming in every five or 10 minutes, that was a hard thing for me when I first moved here. I understand that the ridership is getting bigger, yes, but at that time, there wasn't that many people riding the buses.
What specific improvements do you think the city should make to its public transportation system, and by when should those changes be completed?
Well, they’re looking into smaller buses, like minivan services. And, like I mentioned before, the electric buses. And maybe they can give an incentive to bus riders. If you buy a bus, let’s say a month pass, I don't know how much it is now, but you could pay a flat fee. I know that they’re improving ridership by, what is that platform now, like to see where the buses are? It's kind of a real-time app or something. And you can see how long the bus is going to take.
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?
Do you have any?
No, I’m just kidding with you. I’m a big kidder.
But I assume that that's a no then.
It is a no.
Second part. Have you ever been charged with a crime — including traffic violations? If so, what did you learn from that experience?
Crime? Well, I have a couple of speeding tickets. But you know, in my defense, I used to have a Ford Taurus, and that was like a bullet, and I got pulled over on my way to Richmond. And then another time, I had a heavy vehicle. I was in Pennsylvania, and I had all kinds of stuff that I was taking to New York for a donation to the Dominican Republic, with medical supplies. My vehicle was loaded.
And the other night, I got stopped by the police. I was coming from a friend's house, and I kind of thought that, it was dark on Hershberger and I saw the police. Next thing, you know, I see the police behind me. So I stopped and said, ‘What did I do? I'm not speeding.’ I said, ‘OK, what's going on here?’ The officer was very nice. He said, ‘Ma'am, do you know [why] I'm stopping you?’ I said, ‘I have no clue.’ ‘Well, your headlights are out.’ I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ He was absolutely very professional. I am very proud of the work that the police department is doing. And he says, ‘I still need to see your driver's license.’ I said, ‘OK, no problem.’ And I gave him my driver's license and I thanked him for his work, for his service. So he said he was just going through the motions, but still, you know, I started sitting there going, ‘OK, what did I do?’ My husband was driving my vehicle the night before, and I have the lights on automatic and he doesn’t like that, so he turned them off. I got in the car, and all I did was readjust the mirrors. I didn't think about the lights.
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?
That's a tough one. Let's see. Job opportunities, career and technical. And I'm thinking, one of the things with career and technical, when they open the new ROTEC [Roanoke Technical Education Center], if the parents could come in at night and earn some kind of apprenticeship program. A trade.
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?
Well, my philosophy, I believe in smart development, meaning making use of our brownfields. But we also have to recognize that we are landlocked and we have to make the best use of the existing space that we have right now. And you know, and I don't mean by, you know, tearing up parks or any of that, but we have to recognize that. How do we attract people that want to buy up those parking lots and build on them? Some parking lots are just sitting there vacant. Nobody has used them in years.
You are seeking election for the first time after City Council appointed you in the fall of 2020 to complete the unexpired term of former councilwoman Djuna Osborne. During your time on City Council, what would you say has been your most significant accomplishment, which would otherwise not have happened had you not been on City Council?
Well, we are a team. So I don’t want to say a single thing because we all have passed a balanced budget, we dealt with the ARPA funds. On the other side, one thing I can say that I accomplished on my own that I didn’t need a City Council vote for, it was important to me to have benches on the train platform. If you go by the train now, we have benches. Simple as that. I saw the need of people, elderly people just standing there and not being able to run to catch the train. We have platforms around the train.
We brought up a pay raise for our first responders, our city police. We're working on fire and EMS next year. We already started, we’re just looking at the plan for next year, for the budget.
The benches of the train station, that's something that might go totally overlooked for a lot of people.
Right. You know, if you think about it, you see, people normally sit in their cars, and then they just run to catch the train. Well, if you are elderly or you have some kind of disability, you get up to the train station, and then there's no place to sit. So it took about six months but we got it done. It took longer, because there was an issue with Amtrak. Amtrak had to decide to put them on. I was hoping that the benches would be there before the second train arrived.
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