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Mecklenburg County Commission Chairwoman Jennifer Roberts

Two months ago, Democrat Jennifer Roberts came in first in the Mecklenburg County Commission at-large race, racking up more votes than any other county commissioner, including Parks Helms, the long-time Democratic leader of the commission.

Roberts talked with Creative Loafing last week about leading the commission, something a woman has rarely done in Mecklenburg County.

Creative Loafing: On election night, when Parks Helms said that he thought he would run the county commission for a year or so even though you had come in first in the at-large race, I just about came out of my seat. I thought that surely since you teach foreign affairs at a college level, you are smart enough to chair the county commission. I've noticed that Parks Helms is not currently running the commission. How that was resolved?

Jennifer Roberts: Tradition has always been that the highest vote-getter from the dominant party gets to be chair. Election night is always full of emotion and surprises when you are looking at change. So I think Parks' initial comment that he might run it for a year and that I would run it for a year was probably just something he thought of because he was still sort of coming to grips with something.

I gave him some space to realize what had happened. I called him the next day and said, "I hope I can have your vote to support me as the chair." I met with him and he said, "Well, you know it takes a lot of time," and he talked about the different things involved because there are a lot more things that the chair does. He gave me the lay of the land, and I said I believe I can do that.

You said you heard from a lot of women angry about the idea of you sharing the chairmanship with Parks Helms. Do you think Parks heard from these women?

You'd have to ask him. He might have heard from a few. Maybe Eleanor (Helms' wife) talked with him. Who knows.

You were around for the arts debacle in the late 1990s. So you know (Republican County Commissioner) Bill James can get out of hand. Do you have a Bill James management plan?

Bill is predictable. I think I am going to play on his strengths and include him. Bill James is a good numbers guy. There are going to be times when I am going to need for him to look at percentages and increases and to help interpret accounting things for me.

Even some of the things he says about morality, I think that there is truth in there and the challenge he has is that he presents it in a way that is divisive, that is blaming and shaming and that is trying to absolve us of some responsibility because he has put it all back on the families who are in the "moral sewer." Even if you feel that way, now what are you going to do? So lets spend more time and energy on the solution. If he is willing to do that, I'm willing to listen, but not if he is going to go back and name call and try to just raise a ruckus. So that's the Bill James management plan. Whether it will work or not I don't know. We'll see.

You say you plan to reach out to people?

I know because people tell me that I have already been out to group meetings much more than other at-large commissioners. Someone in Cornelius said they didn't think they'd ever seen a county commissioner at a Cornelius town hall meeting. I've been there many times. You try to find those areas that feel neglected and help them have a voice and try to listen to them.

I do think that the division has been really center city and then everyone else because there are a lot of resources in center city and a lot of attention here because a town center is very vital. The impression that people have is that you are focusing all your resources there and you are forgetting the suburbs.

One of the things that is going to come up soon is school construction, and there is a huge need in the suburbs. It shouldn't be if the inner city gets it then the suburbs aren't because we can do both. We have to get past the tug of war and recognize that we just have a bigger pie and everybody gets a piece.

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