Radford will have at least one new face on its city council.
Four candidates are vying for two seats on the five-person board in the May 19 election. The sole incumbent on the ballot is Dick Harshberger, who is running for his fifth four-year term.
Citizens will vote to fill two seats on its school board as well.
City Registrar Tracy Howard has said that those planning to vote in-person at their polling precinct may expect longer wait times due to COVID-19 state mandates.
The Roanoke Times asked the council candidates to answer questions about themselves and the office they wish to hold.
A similar Q&A with the five candidates running for school board was featured in last Sunday’s edition of the New River Valley section and is also online at roanoke.com.
Responses were not altered, with the exception of grammatical changes for clarity.
Why are you running for a seat on the city council?
Onassis Burress: The city of Radford holds a special place in my heart. Over the past three years, Radford has welcomed my family and I in with open arms and for that, I am forever grateful. I have been fortunate to have served the city of Radford in various roles ranging from president of the Radford Chamber of Commerce to coaching youth soccer and basketball through the Radford Recreation Center. I am a servant leader at heart, so I see the role of city council as the next level of servitude as it allows me to serve our city and provide leadership in a greater capacity. Radford is an amazing city with the potential to be an even more amazing place to work, live and raise a family, and I am excited to be a potential part of this process.
Andrew Crane: I believe in the power of representative democracy and collective action. I also believe in serving one’s community. I believe that means firstly ensuring that we are providing the services and infrastructure that our citizens need such as after-school programs for our youth and making sure our roads and sidewalks are safe and accessible to all citizens. Secondly, I believe that means being a good steward of our city’s finances. Lastly, but no less importantly, I believe that means listening to citizens’ concerns and ensuring that government is open and accessible to all.
Dick Harshberger: Radford is on the move! I worked ceaselessly to help navigate the recession and the foundry closing, and attain our present fiscal strength and momentum. Now, more than ever, in the face of the coronavirus challenge, I want to continue as a major force in overcoming the negative financial impacts to our business sector, and to our citizens to emerge with the city intact. My skills and experience outlined below illustrate that I rise to challenges, and am energized by them. I have the experience, the drive and the track record of accomplishments to keep Radford forging ahead, even during these unsettling times.
Forrest Hite: Service has always been a very important part of my life. My dad is an Air Force veteran; my wife is a former police officer and still works with law enforcement at Radford University, and I’ve spent my entire adult life working for a Christian nonprofit. I want to bring that attitude of service to city council: to serve my neighbors and my community. Having considered this for a while, my wife and I feel there’s no better time than now. Radford has been good to me this past decade; I want to do my part to ensure that it continues to thrive.
What makes you a qualified candidate?
Burress: I have served in leadership roles of great scope and responsibility for over two decades, ranging from large Fortune 500 companies to small regionally based companies, coupled with past experience working with city leadership and economic development, either directly or indirectly by serving as a board member on boards which focused on economic development or through my job duties. Additionally, I hold both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business administration and am currently completing a doctor of business administration degree in addition to over two decades of capital and operating budget creation/oversight and management experience, which I strongly feel will serve the city of Radford and myself well as a city council member.
Crane: While I have never served on a governing body, I have been attending both city council and school board meetings frequently over the past couple of years to stay informed on the issues. I believe this will allow me to start with some familiarity with the matters before council. Further, I believe that my training as an engineer helps me to be a problem solver, and my curiosity and desire to understand leads me to investigate and research a wide variety of issues.
Harshberger: First, is my 16 successful years of experience on council. I love our city and its people, and believe I have served them well. Second, are my professional experiences at Virginia Tech, where I served as director of the Pamplin College Management Development Center, and as director of the University Leadership Development Program. I continue to train executives in leadership development, strategic planning, leading and managing change, communication skills, conflict resolution, problem solving/decision making, team building, project management and motivating employees. I have facilitated over 100 strategic planning retreats for business, industry, government and professional associations, both nationally and internationally.
Hite: Why I’m qualified to serve Radford: I’ve lived in and loved Radford for 10 years. This is where I graduated, got married and bought my first house; it’s where my wife and I want to raise our family. I’m therefore personally invested in seeing Radford prosper. Why I’m qualified for the role of councilman: I’ve worked at a local Christian nonprofit for over nine years, where my primary roles are as data administrator (managing a database) and editor (overseeing several large projects and grammatically editing our publications). Dealing with words and numbers on a daily basis has yielded an attention to detail that I believe would prove valuable on city council — whether when examining budgets, hearing from citizens or voting on proposals.
If elected, what would be the first thing you would propose changing?
Burress: In my opinion, the top two challenges or opportunities that I would partner with my fellow council members to explore addressing is the lack of available single-family homes in addition to potentially offering increased support of economic development activities. With regards to increasing the inventory of single-family homes, I would partner with local and regional developers coupled with taking partners within city government to gain a better understanding of potential changes that could be made to zoning ordinances or potential tax incentives to be offered that would create new development and redevelopment opportunities that result in an increase to our single-family home inventory. I would take a similar approach regarding economic development by offering my support to our city manager and economic development director and work collectively to attract new businesses and to expand upon existing businesses within the city of Radford.
Crane: My goal in running for city council is not to upend the current council’s agenda, but to further it. That said, once we have truly turned the corner on Covid-19, I think there are some areas where we should be investing. I would like to see the pilot program for curbside recycling get started. I would also like to investigate starting an after-school program for youths in our community.
Harshberger: Increased transparency. Looking back on my time on city council, I believe we can do a better job of communicating to our citizens why we do certain things, in a certain way, as well as the legal constraints imposed on us. Here are just a few examples: 1) three council members cannot meet independently outside of official city council meetings; 2) council cannot discuss personnel matters publicly; 3) council cannot discuss real estate or property matters publicly. So it might help with transparency if we more fully explained and continued to explain repeatedly to our citizens what the duties, responsibilities and the constraints of serving in public office really are.
Hite: My first council meeting would be the organizational meeting in July, during which I intend to propose at least two changes: first, to increase the time limit of citizen comments to more than the current two minutes per person (perhaps to five minutes, like our school board meetings); second, to add a structured time immediately following citizen comments in which council members can respond. Currently, there’s not an opportunity for response until the end of the meeting. This means that citizens typically have to wait about an hour to know whether their comments will be remembered or addressed. I believe it is crucial that citizens are heard and know that they are heard.
How do you feel about the city’s current use of taxpayer’s funds?
Burress: The city of Radford, under the leadership of the city council and our city manager, have served as good stewards of the city’s taxpayer’s funds, especially given the recent budget modifications. I support the council taking action to make necessary capital improvements to the aging infrastructure of our schools in addition to allocating funds towards supporting other critical aspects of our city such as our first responders. I have worked with limited capital and operating budgets for decades, so my hope would be to add value to conversations regarding the exploration of alternate tax revenue-generating strategies, other than through increased property taxes, to generate additional tax revenue for our city.
Crane: I feel that the current city council has been judicious with both their use of taxpayer funds and their decisions regarding our property tax rates. I support their decision to increase the tax rate in 2019 in light of the imminent construction on McHarg Elementary and the need to avoid depleting the city’s reserves. While that decision was justified by the credit rating downgrade the previous year, it has proven to be even more wise in light of the current pandemic and its effect on the city’s finances. Though it wiped out our surplus, we were not forced to draw on the reserves.
Harshberger: I am a fiscal conservative and a social liberal, so I am always weighing both. I must say, as a fiscal conservative, that the city of Radford runs a tight ship. Our city manager and our finance director present us with a budget that is hard to cut. However, in the face of this current crisis, I will support short-term measures that include tight control of personnel costs, close scrutiny of purchasing practices, review of all ongoing expenditures, pooling of resources and partnering with other locales, close management of capital spending, equipment costs and debt and enhancing revenues wherever possible. As a social liberal, I will do all in my power to support easing the burden of this crisis on our citizenry. For example, this includes extending grace time for utility bills to prevent any disconnections of utility services, deferring the collection of sales tax on our small businesses and providing city support for all programs for feeding our hungry.
Hite: As a fiscal conservative, I do have some concerns regarding taxes and spending. For example, the purchase and renovation of the pocket park on West Main is a nice project, for sure; in a world where we have excess funds, it might be worth considering for the upgrade in beautification. But it has added no revenue for the city, and there are a number of other projects to consider. In future, before increasing the tax burden on Radford’s citizens, I would rather see the council make every effort to: 1) increase revenue streams; 2) eliminate any unnecessary spending from the budget; and/or 3) find ways to lower the costs of larger projects to which we’re committed.
What are the most important functions of the city council?
Burress: I view the role of the city council serving in multiple functions. First, as a megaphone that amplifies the voice of our residents ensuring that all voices and concerns are heard. Second, as an educator that provides greater understanding to its residents regarding how we as a city will find success both fiscally and from an economic development perspective. Lastly, as a shepherd that provides guidance and direction while also ensuring the safety and well-being of each and every resident of our great city.
Crane: In general, the most important function of our city government is providing services to the citizens of Radford. City council’s role is to make budgetary and legislative decisions in furtherance of that goal. But I think the only way to be effective in that role is through open communication between council members and citizens. I think it is important to seek out comment beyond the confines of council chambers. If elected, I would want to be available to hear citizens’ concerns, so that I could then be a voice for them on council.
Harshberger: Radford has a city manager form of government. The city manager is employed and supervised by the city council, and is charged with the managing of the city on a day-to-day, month-to-month and year-to-year basis. The city council is charged with setting all policies for the city. It determines and sets up fees and tax levies which create the revenue streams needed by the city manager to manage the city and provide all of the needed services. These include all of our utilities (electric, sanitation, water/wastewater and transit), our health, safety and security (EMS, Police and Fire), education (pre-school, kindergarten, elementary and secondary) and quality of life (parks, recreation and tourism).
Hite: The city council is a representative body. As such, I believe its most important function is to represent the citizens well — by listening to them, by serving them in any way possible, by working hard on their behalf, by communicating clearly and being forthright, by being wise stewards of taxpayer dollars, by aiding the economic development of the city and by always striving for the betterment of the community.