WILMINGTON — Mayor Bill Saffo is running for mayor against challenger Devon Scott.
Note: Candidate interviews are published largely without editing (besides minor typographical corrections) and without limits on length. Both mayoral candidates received the same questions (which included those asked of council members, in addition to some just for the mayoral race). The questions appear in bold with answers in italics below.
Mayoral role: What’s your view of the mayor’s role in leading Wilmington?
The Mayor is the spokesperson for the Wilmington City Council and the City of Wilmington. As the leader, my role is to build consensus with the city council and other public elected officials so that we achieve the goals and objectives of the citizens of Wilmington. As one of the leaders in our region, it is also my responsibility to work with other elected leaders in neighboring counties, cities, and towns to also enhance and move the region forward while maintaining the quality of life that we have come to expect. In the moment of a crisis, a leader must be focused, calm, and deliberate in protecting our city. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that quality during Hurricane Florence, and other issues that have impacted our community over the years.
Mayoral vision: As mayor, what would you like to see Wilmington accomplish over the next two years? What long-term goals would you like to move the ball forward on?
I would like to finish the implementation of the $55 million transportation and $38 million parks bond that was voted on and supported by our citizens. I would also like to work with our neighboring municipalities and counties in establishing goals and objectives for our region. Many of these would include transportation projects our citizens would like to see happen and we would also speak with a unified voice on economic development initiatives like film, and the recruitment of companies and jobs to our areas.
Affordable housing: One of the most common concerns we hear from readers is the need for affordable housing. Is the city doing enough to address the issue? If not, what specific plans would you suggest?
Affordable housing is important to the entire community. The city and county assembled a group of stakeholders to give local government recommendations which will be adopted to add more workforce housing in our community. We must also include working with the private sector as well as local and state non-profits. Some suggestions will be to incentivize builders like we are currently doing on Castle Street. In addition, the City has spent over the last five years an average of $2.5 million on housing initiatives. To date, some 400 citizens have taken advantage of those housing policies to obtain home ownership.
Mass transportation: WAVE is in financial crisis and, by some accounts, fails to adequately connect low-income areas with workplaces efficiently (sometimes called a ‘last mile’ problem). Some have suggested cutting back services, others have called for more local support for WAVE. Where do you stand, and what would you like to see public transportation look like in the Wilmington area?
First, WAVE is an authority that is governed by a separate Board of Directors, not the city. The city plays an active role in supporting the initiatives and goals of the authority by helping to fund them. With a growing population in a very urbanized area, it is imperative that both city and county governments fund WAVE at the same levels to ensure additional ridership and convenience.
Employment: What are your thoughts on Wilmington’s job scene? Are you satisfied with the way incentives have been used in the past? What other specific plans would you suggest to bring jobs to the area — and what kinds of jobs would you like to see here?
NC Commerce estimates that Wilmington has the strongest estimated job growth in the state. Our job scene has been healthy and robust this past year and some 1,660 individuals filing articles of incorporation for new businesses from January to June. Our unemployment rate has hovered between 3.8% and 4% which is good.
Incentives are performance based. A company must invest over $10 million and create over 70 jobs that are verified by the Employment Security Commission before one dime of incentive is paid. Because of our incentive programs, we have seen companies like CastleBranch, nCino, Live Oak Bank, Verizon Wireless, National Gypsum, and our film industry thrive and create jobs for our citizens.
Downtown: Wilmington has paid special attention to its downtown area in terms of incentives, police presence, marketing, and other services (including those provided by WDI). What are your thoughts on the current state of downtown? Are there any specific changes you’d like to see in the downtown area?
Downtown is vibrant and strong and will continue to be so in the coming years as more and more people return to work and live in our downtown. This did not happen by accident. Many councils over many years have invested and worked with the private sector to revitalize downtown Wilmington. Things like our Riverwalk, convention center, streetscape improvements, Wilson Center, the future Northern Riverfront Park, have all contributed to this. Yet, it is the individual business owner and citizen who has also made significant investments in their homes and businesses that have also contributed to this renaissance.
Development: There’s been a lot of discussion about how development has taken place in Wilmington. Are you satisfied with that process? Is there anything about it you’d like to change?
It would be nice if we could limit the number of people who move to our city. That is not reality, as we live in a free country. Therefore, the City of Wilmington along with our citizens developed the Comprehensive Land Use Plan which is a map that indicates where future growth will be allowed. There is a misperception that the city is randomly allowing development to take place and yet it is demonstrated in this public document that we actually have a long-term plan in place.
In addition, all development that requires a rezoning must meet city standards, must go through planning commission with a public hearing and finally come before city council which includes another public hearing. Also, for a project to be approved, it must meet before our technical review committee which includes 12 individuals from the fire department, MPO, civil engineers and stormwater, staff planner, CFPUA and others and meet technical review standards.
Green space/trees: Every city approaches its green spaces and urban canopy differently. What are your thoughts on Wilmington’s approach? What changes, if any, would you make?
The City has 744 acres of parks at 55 different sites, 16 athletic and recreational facilities, and 28 miles of trail. This, of course, does not include the new parks bond projects which includes the 6.5 acres of North Waterfront Park, the 30-40 acres at the soccer complex, 38 acres for Piney Ridge Nature Preserve Phase II funded in the CIP [Capital Improvement Projects], not begun yet, and the two future parks at Riverlights that total 22 acres.
In addition, City Council has adopted a new tree planting budget each of the last two years. Last year, Council funded a pilot young tree pruning program which will result in healthier trees requiring reduced maintenance and removals. We maintain our Tree City Accreditation, work with Tree Alliance for the Trees Forever program and other non-profits including the Cape Fear Garden Club.
Environmental concerns: Could Wilmington do more to address environmental concerns? If so, what, specifically, would you suggest?
The city will continue to lead as an environmental steward. We have passed a resolution to reduce emissions by 58% by 2050. We have passed two resolutions to oppose offshore drilling. We have implemented a recycling program for the city. We have lobbied both the EPA as well as our state and local officials on more regulations on the Cape Fear River to protect our drinking water. And we have supported the county’s effort to get Duke Power to convert its Sutton Power Plant from coal to natural gas which has resulted in the American Lung Association identifying Wilmington as having some of the cleanest air in the nation.
Opioid epidemic: What are your thoughts on the city’s efforts to combat the opioid crisis? Anything specific you would change, encourage, avoid?
I, as Mayor, convened a group of elected leaders and non-profits, law enforcement and health officials to come together to develop a strategy to deal with this epidemic. Through those efforts, we were able to pass legislation of the Stop Act which limits the number of opioids distributed by health officials. In addition, we have created a fast response team to engage citizens who are addicted to seek treatment and have also supported the building of additional treatment facilities within the city of Wilmington. Along with the county, we were one of the first municipalities in the country to sue opioid manufacturers and distributors that helped create this crisis which eventually will result in the largest settlement in US history.
Jim Crow-era monuments: The two ‘Confederate monuments’ in downtown Wilmington — erected in 1911 and 1924 — have been a source of controversy. Do you have any specific ideas on how to address these monuments?
First and foremost the monuments are the property of the state of NC and are protected by state law passed in 2015. If that law is ever changed or modified, I feel very strongly that this community will come together and have a discussion about how to address this issue. All history is local and many people are passionate about monuments on both sides of the issue. But Wilmington has shown in the past that we can come together and have a vigorous and good debate about monuments. 1898 recognition and memorial is a fine example as to how Wilmingtonians came together to discuss a dark contentious time in our history in a respectful and dignified way. Through those efforts, we now acknowledge as part of our history and memorialized 1898 with a beautiful park at the entrance to our city.
Transparency: Do you think the city and its leaders conduct business transparently? If not, what concerns do you have?
Yes I do. All decisions by the city council are public record and are open to the public. In addition, all of our emails are open and reviewed for public scrutiny. All rezonings are advertised and announced. All meeting are recorded and documented including preagenda meetings. All meetings of the city council are open to the public and announced. City Council contact information is available on the city’s website.
Law enforcement: Are you satisfied with the approach that Chief Ralph Evangelous and the Wilmington Police Department is taking in providing law enforcement for the city? Are there specific aspects you’d like to encourage or change?
I feel that Chief Evangelous and the men and women of WPD have done an outstanding job protecting our community. City of Wilmington saw historic lows of many crimes in 2018 while the city’s population continued to grow. 2018 saw record lows in robbery, burglary, motor vehicle theft, and property crimes. While establishing a safer community for us all, they have implemented many programs to engage our citizens. The Wilmington Police Department Housing Task Force has helped reduce crime in low-income housing communities. Super Girls Academy program is a gang intervention program for Middle and High School Girls. The Police Activities League provides athletic activities for more than 500 youth annually. We had some 700 individuals participate in our active shooter training in 2018. These are just some of the activities that WPD has done, and we are breaking ground on a new training facility.
City management: Are you satisfied with the approach the City Manager Sterling Cheatham is taking in providing leadership for city staff? Are there specific aspects you’d like to encourage or change?
Yes I have been satisfied with the City Manager’s approach. We as elected representatives of the people create policy for our city. Our City Manager and his capable staff carry out those policy decisions for our city council and citizens.
Experience and conflict(s) of interest. What experience do you have that you think would be beneficial for a city leader? Do you have any conflicts of interest that might cause you to recuse yourself from city business?
I have over 16 years of experience in municipal government and understand that to get anything done, people must work together. Working relationships at the local, state, and national level take time to develop. I have demonstrated that I can work with all people and have an open-door policy. We don’t always agree but at the end of the day, we come together for the betterment of the city to get things accomplished. I pride myself on being a consensus builder and working with all citizens to accomplish these goals.