Five candidates are running for three seats on the Christiansburg Town Council in the Nov. 5 election.
A main issue in the race: Can a challenger backed by a town business owner frustrated with current leadership earn a seat?
The three incumbents on the ballot —Sam Bishop, Harry Collins and Henry Showalter — and two challengers — Johana Hicks and Deveron Milne — are looking to serve the town over the next four years.
The Roanoke Times asked those running to describe the issues most important to them. Candidates focused on issues ranging from aging and dilapidated buildings, town spending, the proposed Truman Wilson Park and transparency from the council, particularly its use of closed sessions.
The incumbents said they haven’t accepted donations for the election, and Collins said he pledged to spend less than $1,000 of his own money. They haven’t submitted campaign finance reports, nor are they required to according to Virginia law since Christiansburg has less than 25,000 citizens.
Hicks and Milne received donations and did submit finance reports to the Montgomery County registrar’s office. Milne said he recently accepted a $250 donation from his employer, Industrial Bolting Technologies Inc., a torque wrench manufacturer. According to the reports, Hicks received $200 from Christiansburg-based realtor Benny Hagy and $1,000 from local business owner Marie March.
March, who owns Fatback Soul Shack and Due South BBQ, has been an outspoken critic of the town since it updated its noise ordinance in the spring of 2018 after neighbors surrounding the Starlite Drive-In Theatre complained about the noise from a new sound system it had installed. Hicks has also stated she disagrees with how the town went about dealing with the ordinance.
March’s restaurant was also asked to shut down one of its live music shows one evening due to noise complaints during the same period of time. She said she hasn’t received any complaints since the new ordinance took effect, but did have some words for Mayor Mike Barber.
“So far we haven’t had continued issues with noise ordinance....just run of the mill rudeness, bullying ... and crappy attitude from a mayor with a Napoleon complex who puppeteers town council in making many poor decisions,” March wrote in an email to The Roanoke Times.
“Marie and I don’t have any caring for each other and that’s very obvious ... I know in my heart I’ve done as much as I can do for this town and I look to do even more ... my proven election record has shown that apparently 65 to 70% of the citizens think I’m doing the right job ... amongst everything else, I’d just consider the source,” he said.
March started a “Vote ‘Em Out” campaign in the summer of 2018 in an effort to replace council members with people who are more “small business friendly.” She’s said she would run herself — but she lives in Floyd County.
Hicks, who owns a local realty company, said she was “disturbed and offended” when asked if she was running because she was recruited by March.
“To imply that I am running for her, suggests that I am not a capable woman with talents and assets for the public good,” she wrote in an email.
Hicks thanked March and her husband Jared for their support in a Facebook post on Wednesday. Marie March wrote that she was happy to support any candidate that supported small businesses.
“No other candidate seems to represent small, local business. Incumbents have track record of not helping the small businesses in this community, so I cannot support them,” March wrote.
Barber said while he can’t come out and endorse candidates, he believes the incumbents have done what they were elected to do and plans to vote for them in the election.
The six town council members each earn $5,609 a year. The mayor earns $7,468.
Here's a look at the candidates:
Bishop is a retired police captain who was appointed to council in 2014 and elected in 2015. He said one of his main priorities is to continuing working on the proposed Truman Wilson Park, a planned project to be built on 60 acres off Peppers Ferry Road.
The life member of the Christiansburg Rescue Squad has lived in Christiansburg for over 60 years. He said he'd continue working to improve the town’s appearance by engaging with property owners as well as improving town-owned properties.
Bishop said he is most proud of being “able to maintain my integrity and serve the community to the best of my ability” while on council.
“As a member of Central Business Committee we have worked to enhance the looks of the town. Such as bringing art to town and working with building owners to improve the facade of their building…. As I walk or drive around town and notice things that need improvement such as high grass, street needed repair I brings these to the attention of the town manager,” he wrote in an email.
Collins has been a member of the council since 2014 and on the town Planning Commission since 2012. He has been employed as the facilities manager for Shelor Motor Mile since 2017. He said he’d like to continue working on making a Christiansburg a destination for sports tourism in the region and said the money raised from tournaments at Harkrader Sports Complex, Christiansburg Aquatic Center and Christiansburg Recreation Center have brought in millions of dollars to the local economy.
“I want to make Christiansburg a leader so other towns and cities in the state will say – let’s do it like Christiansburg!” he wrote in an email.
Collins, a 12-year resident of Christiansburg, is a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative who said he will not vote to increase taxes. He supports projects like the Truman Wilson Park, which he believes can be completed without raising taxes. He said he’s proud of implementing the moment of silence before council meetings and initiating the blighted properties project.
Additionally, he said he initiated saying the Pledge of Allegiance before every planning commission meeting and is also interested in increasing the amount of events in downtown Christiansburg.
“We saw the money involved was worth it and we have successfully had two of these events already,” he wrote.
Hicks said she has lived in the town for more than 18 years. She said she believes taxpayer money could be used more wisely and recently pointed to projects like the aquatic center and the proposed park as things the town cannot afford without increasing taxes, which she is strongly against.
“I love parks, want a park, but it must be funded by a referendum and funded by DISCLOSED and truthful tax policy,” she wrote.
Hicks is strongly opposed to closed session meeting at council meetings unless “it endangers life. “If it is anything else (unless prevented by law) I will vote to operate within the public view," she wrote in an email. She also said she wants to listen to residents and “have open discussions and encourage citizens to engage with me."
She said she feels her bipartisanship, small business ownership and desire to listen are assets.
“I have housing, zoning and business management life experiences. I know what type of affordable housing is needed and plan to work to reduce the cost of development and encourage good growth by reduction of red tape,” she wrote.
Milne, who is an IT director and former volunteer of the Christiansburg Rescue Squad, has lived in the town for the last two decades. He said council transparency and working toward improving the blighted properties are two issues he’d focus on if elected.
He said while transparency has improved greatly over the last decade, “mostly due to concerned citizens compelling change,” more should be done.
“Our locally elected officials have an incredibly difficult task of prioritizing expenditures and obviously must sometimes make difficult decisions without the scrutiny of an immediate public eye … [but] it's time for our locally elected officials to record the closed meetings, to decide during the meeting when the public will have access to the meeting contents,” he wrote.
Milne said he wants to more strictly enforce the town’s blighted properties code without publicly shaming individual property owners. He said tall grass and weeds have been allowed to flourish in what would otherwise be “pristine neighborhoods.”
“The town's non-enforcement of general upkeep requirements has been attributed to a lack of town personnel to perform the required work. Town code allows for outside contractors to perform such work, yet the town has failed to exercise this option in all cases,” he wrote.
Milne said he’s qualified to be on council because he’s familiar with the town and how it operates and understands the needs of individuals and business alike
He said he appreciates the importance local government plays in shaping the community.
Showalter said he’s a lifelong town resident who's worked in the financial sector his entire life. He currently is employed by Virginia Tech in the bursar's office.
First elected in 2008, Showalter said the town must maintain infrastructure and services, continue a high level of transparency, stay fiscally sound, and ensure that current and future facilities stay financially viable and up to date.
He said he wants to continue expansion of the Huckleberry Trail, as to allow easier access and connectivity throughout town. He also wants the proposed Truman Wilson park behind the Walmart to not burden citizens but also have an inclusive playground, large open green space, trails, recreation fields and a dog park. He said he’d back the new arts initiative, and encourage additional events downtown.
Showalter said government transparency is also a constant concern and something the town must always strive to improve.
“When first elected, the town of Christiansburg had no public relations staff and no real web presence. If a citizen wanted to know what was going on, they had to physically come to town hall. Now, we have a public relations department, informative and interactive web page, facility media devices, a social media presence, mobile and electronic messaging alerts and more,” he wrote.
He said he’s proud of the stability of the budget, the curbside recycling program and moving local election from May to November, which he said reduced costs and increased voter turnout.