Council candidates focus on race relations, crime during forum

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Following a string of gang-related shootings in Salisbury, City Council candidates focused on crime and racial injustice during a Tuesday public forum in downtown.

Part of the focus on crime and racial injustice was by design. Time to Talk, which organized the forum, asked each candidate the same two questions. The first compared Salisbury’s demographics to Ferguson, Mo., which erupted in violence following the fatal shooting of a black teen by a white police officer. The second question covered a broad range of issues, but focused on innovative ideas and bridging a divide between Salisbury’s leaders and minority communities. Every candidate had a limited amount of time to answer the two questions and give opening and closing statements.

About three dozen people attended the forum.

Challenger and community activist Kenny Hardin drew the most positive attention for his comments during the forum. Every candidate received a polite applause following his or her statements. However, Hardin received applause in the middle of his answers; audible, positive comments during his statements; and a loud applause after he wrapped up each portion of his allotted time.

“You want to have (community) meetings at the train depot and the civic center,” Hardin said, referring to current city leadership. “Have the meetings in the communities where the problems are. I’ve been a little frustrated with all this flowery talk and all these promises and people talking about solutions. You can’t close your eyes. The problems are going to be there. I’m going to keep focusing on the problems even if it pisses people off.”

Challenger and local attorney Todd Paris also drew lively applause for his answers. Paris occasionally criticized current city leadership, including Salisbury Police Chief Rory Collins.

Incumbent and banker Brian Miller gathered a bit of attention near the end of the forum. In his closing statement Miller spoke about Salisbury leaders needing to make bold changes to improve the city. He then mentioned one of Paris’ previous critical statements of current city leadership. Miller called Paris’ critical statements of city leadership ironic.

“A lot of what Mr. Paris, to my left, has been talking about are issues that need to be brought up and talked about,” Miller said. “But the irony of it is it’s decisions made by a former employee of the city that have a lot to do with where we are today. So I’ll just leave it at that. I think everybody knows what I’m talking about.”

Miller didn’t specify which former city employee he was referring to.

Outside of flashy statements sprinkled throughout answers, candidates focused on outlining specific goals and solutions to problems in Salisbury. Multiple candidates — Paris, William Peoples and Jeff Watkins — called for the firing of Salisbury Police Chief Rory Collins as a way to improve the police department.

Nearly all of the Salisbury City council candidates — 15 of 16 — attended the forum, held at East Square Artworks. Incumbent and architect Karen Alexander had previously said she wouldn’t be able to attend. Challenger, attorney and entrepreneur David Post left after opening statements to celebrate the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. Challenger and local businessman Jeff Watkins said he left early for work reasons.

A summary of each candidate’s responses to the first question during the forum — comparing Salisbury to Ferguson, Mo. — is included below. A full story on each candidate’s opinions on crime and policing will run in the Salisbury Post on Sunday.

Stephen Arthur 

Arthur said the demographics in Salisbury and Ferguson are similar, and Salisbury is on the verge of an explosion. One of the solutions, he said is picking leaders who “care about everybody.”

He said Salisbury has to pick leaders who don’t care about special interests.

“There’s no easy solution but opening a dialogue and listening to each other,” Arthur said.

Roy Bentley

Bentley said it’s key for government to have a positive relationship with communities.

He said a lack of trust is at fault for some of the violence that occurred in Ferguson, Mo. Increasing trust could prevent a violent backlash in similar situations, he said.

Maggie Blackwell 

Blackwell said Salisbury’s demographics may appear similar to Ferguson, but they’re also similar “to a thousand other cities that are thriving.” She said Salisbury’s best days are in the future.

“That said, I have never seen race relations in Salisbury as bad as they are now,” Blackwell said.

During Tuesday’s forum, she announced that city officials had made plans to travel to another, unnamed city on Oct. 5 to try to learn how that city bridges gaps in race relations.

“It’s a small step, but I think the best way to solve a problem is to see what’s working,” she said.

Kenny Hardin

Hardin said diversity in Salisbury can’t happen without inclusion.

“If everybody is not part of the process, then we need to blow it up,” Hardin said. “We need to destroy it, we need to fix it, and we need to start over.”

Part of the problem in Salisbury, Hardin said, is a disproportionate representation of Salisbury’s residents among its leaders.

“We’ve got five seats, so we can have more than one black person,” Hardin said.

Constance Johnson

Johnson said Ferguson and Salisbury’s demographic statistics appeared to be identical.

“We’re just one step, just one snap, away from being the same town with the same problems and the same violence,” Johnson said.

One problem she mentioned is that Salisbury’s diverse cultures don’t trust each other. She said Salisbury only focuses on one culture and excludes others.

Rip Kersey

Kersey said the only statistic that mattered was the probability of someone making a mistake. The probability of a mistake increases every time there’s violence on the streets of Salisbury, he said.

“That is what’s going to turn us into the next Ferguson much more than statistically and where our population stands,” Kersey said. “We have to address this problem immediately and with force. It’s been done in other cities and with other people.”

Mark Lewis

Lewis said there’s been a steady degradation of community dialogue in the previous several years. He cited legislation coming out of the N.C. General Assembly as one example of a contributing factor.

“No one trusts anymore,” Lewis said. “It really saddens me when I come by my church and I see six people standing out with Confederate flags in front of the Confederate memorial. And we are going to use that as speaking about what our community is all about. Just previously, a week before that, we had 300 people at a prayer service at the bell tower. Why are the protesters more important than the people that come together to pray?”

He said it was important for county and city leaders to work together.

Scott Maddox

Maddox said Salisbury problems — trust, communication and tolerance — are similar to those faced by the entire nation.

“We’ve got to get to a point where people aren’t afraid to say what’s in their heart,” Maddox said. “Now we’ve got people that are afraid to say what they really feel. We need to be able to do that. We need to address people’s concerns whether we think it’s a concern or not.”

Maddox said fixing Salisbury’s inclusiveness problems will take time.

Brian Miller

Miller discounted the question, saying demographic statistics can be morphed to say anything.

“Could we have race relations in our community be improved? Absolutely,” Miller said. “Do I accept the notion that several candidates will make tonight that the currently seated council members do not care about all of our citizens? I reject that 100 percent.”

He listed multiple events the city hosts aimed at “honoring all the citizens in the community.”

Todd Paris

Paris said Salisbury has always been about government “by the right people, for the sort of right people.”

Paris said he agreed with Hardin’s points. Noting the recent shootings, Paris said Salisbury “subsidizes” Fibrant and “continues to cut back the Salisbury Police Department Budget.” He cited data saying there are fewer police officers in the department today than in 2008.

He mostly talked about Fibrant during the first question. Paris said Salisbury “needs to stop being a fiber-optic network.”

William Peoples

Peoples said Salisbury isn’t very inclusive.

“We don’t talk to each other about the crime situation,” Peoples said. “We don’t talk to each other about the unfair hiring in the city for employees. We don’t talk to each other about the unfairness in education.”

He said parents need to talk to children. Felony convictions follow a person for his or her entire life, Peoples said. He said Salisbury residents need to demand more from their leaders.

David Post 

Post was only able to give an opening statement before leaving. He began his opening statement by saying voters should pick the five best candidates.

He gave brief biographical information and stressed last year he sold his business to another company that was committed to staying in Salisbury. Post’s company and jobs associated with the business stayed in Salisbury as a result, he said.

Post said Salisbury won’t get back its lost textile jobs. He said Fibrant was one of the best things the city could have done. One of Post’s ideas is to make Fibrant free for all businesses and residents located downtown. It could revitalize downtown’s storefronts, he said.

Troy Russell

Russell said one person on the city council couldn’t independently make change. Instead, Russell said, candidates have to work with each other.

He said some in Salisbury don’t have money and walk the streets as a result. He said bringing more businesses into Salisbury could help improve the city’s demographic statistics.

Tamara Sheffield

Sheffield said there’s not a lot of difference between Salisbury and Ferguson, Mo. Sheffield said Salisbury also isn’t extensively different than “a lot of other cities.”

“We were sitting at home, watching the news when it happened to Ferguson, and all thought we were one incident away, right?” Sheffield said. “The big difference is the love that the people in this city have. We do know that there’s that big difference.”

Examining crime statistics, Sheffield said, will show that overall crime is down but violent crime has increased.

Jeff Watkins

Watkins said Salisbury doesn’t need a situation similar to Ferguson to occur here. The city wouldn’t have the manpower to deal with a violent series of protests, Watkins said.

When he was a child, Watkins said, it was common for children to aspire to be a police officer. Now, children are scared, Watkins said.

He said children are also scared to talk to police officers because of a lack of trust. He said Salisbury needs to bring trust back to the community.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.