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Q and A with Curt Walton

by Mark Peres

March 7,2008

So how powerful do you feel?

Not very. I have 12 bosses on the City Council that I report to and I have 14 department heads that I rely upon. Those department heads manage 6500 employees, and that’s who gets the work done. It’s a team effort and we depend on each other. Any power that we might have is in the service we deliver to the citizens of Charlotte.

Do you ever see Charlotte adopting a strong mayor system?

I don’t see it happening here until we are considerably larger and our perceptions about governance change. A strong mayor system is really a function of the size of a city and geographic custom. Large northern cities traditionally have had strong mayor systems in which they are run by full-time politicians whose livelihoods are derived from their public service. Cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are too large and entrenched to change to other forms of governance. The city manager system, which originated in the South, is still primarily a Southern thing, although it is spreading to cities out West. The vast majority of cities in the South do not have full-time mayors and council members. Instead, council members work part-time while valuing professional managers who don’t change with year-to-year politics.

Isn’t it a fiction that our city council members can do their job as part-time officials?

No. I don’t think so. It may be a hefty part-time job for a $14,000 annual salary, but it’s entirely up to them how much they immerse themselves. For example, they can immerse themselves in zoning, and never come out. But I also think they can earn their livelihood elsewhere and meet their responsibilities and do their job well as city council members setting policy.

If you had a blank check, what one initiative would you spend it on?

(Long pause). That’s a great question. If I could do anything I would seed the clouds, make it rain, clean up the air and improve the environment. But putting that aside, it is bothersome to me that we are the largest city in the country without a family shelter for the homeless. If someone is homeless in Charlotte, we separate them by gender and by age and direct them to different shelters. Homeless children are separated from their parents. Husbands and wives are broken up. I wouldn’t want us to become a magnet for the homeless, and I don’t know exactly what percentage of our homeless population are families, but whatever the number is, it’s something that with all our attributes as a community, I find unacceptable.

Does this city work for the people you pay the least?

Charlotte is an expensive place to live. Housing costs are high. The medium income for a family of four is $60,000. That doesn’t go very far, but I believe the city is a good employer. Some of our employees have very difficult jobs, working with sewage and asphalt and in the trenches. We provide a good working environment that is inclusive. Although health insurance for city employees is relatively expensive, it is stable. We haven’t had significant fluctuations in premiums. The wages and benefit we offer to employees on the lower end of the scale is comparable to other cities and to the private sector.

You attend many meetings. What goes un-discussed? What’s the elephant in the room in Charlotte?

Race. Not only in city business, but in the meetings I attend with other organizations. It’s in the room, but not addressed. You know, I was born in 1957, and my school integrated when I was in 4th grade. My dad was a high school principle, and he told me that integration was disruptive because of White people. We have come a long, long way, but there is still a lack of integration in our neighborhoods and churches. Although Hispanics may be the majority race in our lifetime, we still often see matters as Black vs. White. We’re still working through conditioned responses to disenfranchisement.

How does that bear on city business?

It bears on planning and zoning. It bears on purchasing and contracting.

When you travel and return to Charlotte, what do you see?

It’s easy to be proud of Charlotte. I love our trees. It’s the attribute I most love. When I travel to Texas, Ohio and Florida, and return, it hits me how green we are. I also see our mobility. We have our rush hour, but relatively, we get around easily and well. And I’m impressed by how clean we are. We do “cleanliness” pretty well. Cleanliness is part of our culture, how we see the city, although that culture is slipping a bit. I also see how much wealth there is in Charlotte. Our worst places in town are the mid-places of other cities. Our high-end is much higher than many other cities.

When you look out your office on the top floor of the Government Center, what do you see?

It’s pretty remarkable. In 1987, when I arrived, it was a 9-to-5 city. There was no nightlife at all. We had a small number of residents in 4th Ward and Earle Village. Development was essentially linear on North and South Tryon Streets. The transformation in the last 20 years, especially in the last 10 years, has been remarkable. Although the number of surface parking lots is down by 50% over that time, I also see how much land remains to develop.

What do you think our significance is as a city? Where does our significance lie?

Our quality of life. How we live. We’re also significant in the foot we have in the financial world, although I would put us in the 2nd tier. We’re significant in other worlds, for example in our religious foundation, in our houses of worship. We’re becoming a center for religious tourism. We’re emerging as a center for arts, sports and entertainment consumption. I wouldn’t say that we are producers of art or culture of note. I don’t consider NASCAR culture. Having Johnson & Wales University here helps, and having the Rhode Island School of Design here would help too. There is tremendous capacity in Charlotte for significance.

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