‘We are on the right course, and doing the right things’

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 12, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Bobby Ralph has been a fixture at city government meetings for the better part of four decades.

During his years as the city’s director of social services – he retired in June 2002 – Ralph watched local leaders carry the city through its 1974 marriage of the landlocked town of 12,000 and sprawling Nansemond County. Under the guidance of eight mayors – and probably as many city managers – he says he has witnessed the blossoming of this 430-square-mile city.

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After years of watching local lawmakers shape the city, Ralph, the Suffolk borough’s City Council representative since 2002, assumed the municipality’s helm on July 1.

Ralph, 64, was elected mayor during the City Council’s investiture ceremony, ousting veteran Mayor E. Dana Dickens III by a 4-3 vote.

&uot;I’ve been entrenched in local government for 37 years. I’ve spent endless hours observing the council over the years and I’ve developed a deep interest in how our city’s government works,&uot; he said. &uot;I think I’ve always had to a burning desire to be a member of council.&uot;

&uot;I consider this a very distinct honor. To me, this is the pinnacle of local government.&uot;

In coming weeks, Ralph will begin working from an office in the Municipal Building, 441 Market St. He plans to have daily office hours.

Unlike Dickens, who chose to use city funds to hire a part-time assistant to help with his mayoral responsibilities, Ralph says he will use the services of a soon-to-be-hired assistant to City Council Clerk Erika Jenkins.

Ralph said residents shouldn’t expect to see any dramatic changes in the council’s priorities. He believes the city needs to keep focusing on economic development, quality of life, smart growth, education and downtown/neighborhood revitalization.

&uot;We are on the right course, and doing the right things,&uot; said Ralph. &uot;But the processes we use to implement them will probably change somewhat.&uot;

For example, Ralph says, he would like to see council members become more active in programs and organizations within their boroughs. That could reflect in numerous ways – attending more civic league and neighborhood meetings, hosting more informational meetings within boroughs, more participation at ribbon-cuttings and other ceremonies within one’s borough.

&uot;…I perceive myself as being a very hands-on mayor and…I’m a firm believer in the communication of ideas and feeling,&uot; he said. &uot;I want to see us get as much community input on ideas, then use that information to support our actions.

&uot;I think it is important for us to be accessible,&uot; he continued. &uot;If my office isn’t convenient, people can stop me when they see me on the streets here in the downtown or in the Harbour View area.

As mayor, Ralph will represent the city on several regional boards, including the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission.

But he says he will continue to lean upon other council members, including two former mayors on council, for their expertise in particular areas. For example, Ralph has asked Dickens, highly regarded statewide for his expertise on smart growth issues, to continue serving on the state’s High Growth Coalition, a 26-locality organization focuses on growth-related issues. He will chair the organization this year.

&uot;Continuity is important,&uot; Ralph said. &uot;I’ve asked him to continue representing the city government before the General Assembly and on organizations like the High Growth Coalition.&uot;

&uot;Dana has carried the torch for smart growth in Suffolk,&uot; he said. &uot;He has developed good relationships within these organizations over the years. I think it’s important to keep him in touch with these people and issues.&uot;

That comes as good news to council members concerned that Suffolk would loose foothold gained by Dickens over the past couple of years.

Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, reelected to a second term on July 1, said Dickens’ extensive lobbying before the General Assembly, particularly on issues related to smart growth and regional transportation, have been invaluable to the city.

&uot;Dana has represented us well in the region and in Richmond,&uot; he said. &uot;I would hate for us to lose anything he has accomplished. I think it is important for those dialogues to continue because they have helped us with so many issues.&uot;

For example, Bennett said, Dickens’ lobbying played a key role in the city’s getting state money to partially fund the Constant’s Wharf bulkhead project.

Dickens said he is happy to continue representing the city on such levels.

&uot;It (smart growth) is one of the things I am very passionate about and …that I’ve had great deal of experience and involvement with over the years,&uot; Dickens said.

With the city’s population projected to top 140,000 by 2018, Ralph believes transportation needs to be moved higher up on the council’s priority list.

&uot;Right now, you can travel in Suffolk with some degree of comfort and ease,&uot; even though the network of streets was built to accommodate the population of the 1960s, Ralph said.

&uot;But as the city’s population grows and the city develops, we have to do a continuing evaluation of our roads,&uot; he said. &uot;To stay on the road to progress, we have to improve our road system. If we don’t, we are not going to be ready to meet the demands of our growing population.&uot;

Currently, the council is studying the feasibility of assuming road construction and maintenance of city roads from the Virginia Department of Transportation.

&uot;We’re looking at taking on the package from VDOT and creating a different level of road service in the city,&uot; Ralph said.

The city staff is expected to make a final recommendation to the council by the end of this year, Ralph said.

The city will continue pressing VDOT on finding funding for construction of new Kings Highway Bridge, Ralph said.

However, Eric Nielsen, director of public works, has indicated that VDOT’s financial straits could prevent that from happening.

&uot;We are extremely concerned about the Kings Highway Bridge,&uot; Ralph said. &uot;The ultimate goal is to have a new bridge open before the old one shuts down.

&uot;If the bridge closes down, it will be a terrible inconvenience for those living in the Chuckatuck area.&uot;

Education will continue to be a top city priority, said Ralph.

Ralph believes the council should give consideration to School Superintendent Dr. Milton R. Liverman’s recent proposal for a revenue-sharing funding mechanism between the city and school system. During the School Board’s recent retreat, Liverman recommended using a formula that would automatically earmark a certain percentage – hopefully, a minimum of 45 percent – of the city’s local revenue stream to the school system.

&uot;I do think the recommendation is worth consideration,&uot; Ralph said. &uot;We need to look at the formula way of funding schools…to make sure the formula is reasonable and fair to both taxpayers and the School Board.&uot;

In years past, the council has spent approximately 40 percent of its budget on education, Ralph added.

The city also needs to increase the attention it gives to storm water runoff, which has created major sinkholes at several homes in Suffolk’s newer subdivisions in recent years.

Although the city has earmarked a pot of money to help homeowners deal with the sinkholes, that’s not solving the problem, Ralph said.

&uot;That is just patching it up,&uot; Ralph said. &uot;It’s been pushed on a back burner for too long. We need to start dealing with it; we have to protect our subdivisions.&uot;

These are among the many issues that the City Council will discuss during coming months and at its retreat in September, Ralph said. Although no retreat destination has been determined, Ralph said he will support remaining close to home – within less than an hour’s drive. Traveling out of the area has been an occasional bone of contention among council members and within the community in recent years.

&uot;I’m more concerned about agenda items that taking tours,&uot; he said.

Ralph said his political aspirations stop at the mayor’s gavel.

‘This is what I want to do, this is the end of the political line for me,&uot; said Ralph.

&uot;Over the years, I had opportunity after opportunity to leave Suffolk for Richmond or Norfolk and I never took them.

&uot;I love Suffolk and its local government is what created a fire in me. My heart is here.&uot;