Strong words at forum
Published 9:31 pm Wednesday, October 29, 2014
The backlash was swift from a crowd of about 100 at the Hilton Garden Inn Suffolk Riverfront on Tuesday night when Vice Mayor Charles Brown said citizens are only upset about last year’s 14-percent raise for the city manager “because she’s a black female.”
Boos, groans and gasps elicited not only from the crowd but also from some fellow candidates seated behind Brown, who is running for re-election in the Cypress Borough.
“When you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” said Tim Johnson, who is challenging incumbent Jeffrey Gardy for the Holy Neck Borough seat.
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In the last public forum before next week’s local elections, hosted by the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, the topic of City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn’s raise got the most discussion. Some candidates even took part of their allotted time for the next question, about a monthly trash disposal fee, to make additional comments about the raise.
It has been a contentious topic since January 2013, when City Council added it to a meeting agenda under new business and then voted on it immediately, erasing any opportunity for the public to comment on it.
That came about nine months after a larger raise for Cuffee-Glenn was proposed as part of the budget process. After citizens filled the City Council chambers in protest, City Council took the proposal off the table. All city employees, the city manager included, received a 3-percent raise that July.
Tuesday night, Brown defended his comment after the noise subsided.
“I speak the facts,” he said. “We hired her for equal work, but her pay was not equal. It was a slap in my face.”
But Kerry Holmes, challenging incumbent Charles Parr in the Suffolk Borough, said it was a smack in the face of citizens instead.
“It was the way in which it was done,” he said. “It had nothing to do with her gender. It had nothing to do with her race.”
Parr said he believes Cuffee-Glenn is “well worth it.”
“I think we’re getting the best dollar return on our city manager that we’ve ever gotten,” he said.
During his time for the next question, Johnson said, “That’s really uncalled for. It needs to stop right now.” Brown added later, “I’m very emotional when I see people doing people wrong.”
Earlier, Parr used part of his introduction to take aim at his two opponents, Holmes and Donald Goldberg, about what Parr said are rumors they’re spreading about him making money on land transactions and investments through his work on City Council.
“They keep saying it, but they can’t prove it,” Parr said.
The candidates also answered a question about whether they would support a tax increase to fully fund schools. Predictably, none of them said directly that he would raise taxes.
“I’m not for a tax increase,” Goldberg said. “We should be able to fund our schools properly. I think we can look within the system itself to find the money.”
Clinton Jenkins, challenging Brown in the Cypress Borough, said he would not support a tax increase and wants to see more cooperation between the city and schools.
“We need to work together throughout the year,” he said.
Brown said the two entities need to work together strategically.
“A lot of folks are saying things and hope you will believe them to get a vote,” he said. “Where are we going to get the money?”
The candidates also answered a question about whether they support developers.
“We need to be in control, and they need to be working for us, not the other way around,” Johnson said.
Gardy said he supports development “because it makes your city grow.”
“They made us go from 55,000 folks to 85,000 folks,” he said, referring to the city’s population growth between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.
The Chamber of Commerce posed a question about the CenterPoint Properties development on Holland Road, which has two warehouse tenants and expects a third to start construction soon.
Most of the candidates agreed the chamber made the right decision in supporting the development, noting that Isle of Wight County was also competing for the project.
“They would just be passing through, tearing up our roads,” Parr said, without the city getting the economic benefits.
Johnson said, “We kind of put the cart before the horse” and noted Route 58 needs to be improved for CenterPoint to flourish.
Mike Duman, the Chuckatuck Borough incumbent who is unopposed, said 58 “does have very high priority” and that Mayor Linda T. Johnson is working hard at the regional level to get funding for it.
On the monthly trash fee, most of the challengers expressed concerns.
TFC Recycling, which picks up the city’s recycling, is “flipping it for a profit, and we’re getting the bill for it,” Holmes said.
But incumbent Gardy said, “Don’t mess with it if it’s working.”
Parr said the city was in the situation of having to charge the fee because of the Southeastern Public Service Authority’s heavy debt. It was caused in part, he said, because the city’s representative on the SPSA board — at the time, Leroy Bennett, who is challenging Brown in the Cypress Borough but was unable to attend Tuesday’s forum — was “asleep at the switch.”
For one final bit of politicking on the night, Gardy read a quote from the Virginian-Pilot in which his challenger, Johnson, said he wanted to bring some integrity back to City Council.
“It accused me of a lack of integrity,” Gardy said. “I don’t think anybody has questioned my integrity.”