- [Narrator] This is a production of PBS Charlotte.
(gentle music) - This weekend Off the Record, when it comes to CATS safety problems, who's really in charge?
The CATS Transit Commission or Charlotte City Hall.
Also, what's next for Eastland Mall?
Our first peak at plans for a possible sports and concert complex.
At CMS, secret interviews for secret candidates.
Our public schools' not so public search for a new superintendent.
And as CMS draws new boundaries between schools, do parents favor more diversity or less distance?
Plus neighbors fight the next big development near Lake Norman, the Republican who wants to be our next governor, and the Panthers draft their next quarterback.
Lots to talk about, next on PBS Charlotte.
(gentle music) And from our PBS Charlotte Studios next to Historic Plaza Midwood.
I'm Jeff Sonier and we're off the record talking about the stories you've been talking about this week.
And if you watch the news, read the news, and listen to the news, well you'll recognize the names and faces around our virtual table.
Ely Portillo from W FAE, Tony Mecia from the Charlotte Ledger, and Genna Contino from the Charlotte Observer.
You can also join the conversation at home or from your phone.
Just email your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well, let's start with the power struggle that's going on regarding the problems at CATS.
It's city council and the mayor squaring off against the Metropolitan Transit Commission, which they're members of, over who decides what happens next when it comes to all those problems that are facing the transit system right now.
I know all of you have written something about that over the last couple of weeks and this week.
Who wants to take first crack at what's going on between the city council and the mayor and the Metropolitan Transit Commission?
- Ely should, I loved his tweet about existentialism.
- Yeah, yeah, we got kind of existentialist this week.
The Metropolitan Transit Commission, which is CATS kind of second governing board.
They're supposed to look at big picture questions, kind of like a high level board of directors.
They have been pushing for an independent outside investigation of CATS derailment of the blue line train in May, 2022.
And the city has said, no, we're not gonna hire an independent outside consultant to do that.
We're gonna ask the federal government to speed up a already scheduled, you know, kind of regular audit.
And that'll, that'll do.
This week though, Lee Altman, who has been kind of the strongest proponent of an outside investigation, she's a county commissioner and a member of the Metropolitan Transit Commission.
She basically, you know, came back at their regular meeting and said listen, you know, if we don't do this, how are we gonna rebuild trust in the system?
She made some strong hints that, you know, there could be impliCATions for CATS budget or the 13 and a half billion dollar transit plan, which the county commission, even though they don't run CATS, they get a say as to whether that goes on the ballot or not for a referendum for people.
And, you know she just really kind of made a strong case for why this outside investigation is needed to restore trust, accountability, and figure out what's wrong with the system.
The Mayor Vi Lyles and council member Ed Driggs, who are, who chairs the transit committee on city council, they pushed back.
They basically said like we don't understand why you want this.
We don't understand why you need this.
Plus you can't tell the city to spend money and it's still our department, so you can't make us spend the money.
And it got pretty heated and it ended with, you know, CATS' governing board, the MTC members saying, well if we can't ask for an outside investigation, if we can't direct anything like this, you know, if we can't take any of these actions, kind of what's the point?
You know, members openly said, are we a rubber stamp?
Other members said, do our votes matter, would it make a difference what we voted on?
What are we doing here?
You know, as far as government meetings go it got, yeah, pretty existentialist.
- Yeah, well, what are the answers to those questions?
I don't know that any of us have definitive answers, but from where you all sit and what you know about these two, these two, you know, competing governing boards or bodies, what's your take on who does have the role and the authority to make the next move?
- Oh, clearly city council is in the driver's seat because CATS is a city department and you know, does report up to the city manager and ultimately to city council.
But there's, you know, this kind of dotted line where the MTC, even though they don't have day-to-day authority, they do technically have the authority to fire the CATS chief executive if they want to.
That's like one of their main powers.
And they're also supposed to, you know, they vote on the budget and they're supposed to set the big policy directive.
So, you know, they're in theory supposed to have this power, but it's been really, I don't know, kind of a sleepy body.
They, even as CATS has had all these problems for the last few years, their meetings are usually cordial.
And they usually just vote yes on everything.
So I think it's kind of a reaction now to them saying like, oh wait, yeah, we actually maybe should exercise this power.
And they've run into a lot of pushback.
It's kinda like wait, wait, wait, you can technically do this, but really, come on.
- Well let's flip the argument.
If city council is truly in charge, and Genna, you've written a lot about this.
I guess the other board, the Metro Metropolitan Planning Commission can ask, well if you're really in charge city council and mayor, why haven't you done anything to prevent these problems in the first place?
Why does a lot of this seem to stem from the, you know, the lack of oversight at City Hall regarding CATS?
I know it's been actually two weeks, not one week, but Genna, you wrote at length about what the old CATS CEO said about the problems he had getting things done under city hall, right?
- Yeah, I spoke to former CATS CEO John Lewis, who really placed the blame on procurement of parts and contracts on the city and said he had kind of been raising the alarm with the city manager that CATS was behind on this light rail vehicle maintenance, on bus fleet replacements and repairs, kind of all these issues, inspections, kind of all these issues that are coming to light and kind of freaking people out over the past month or so.
Of course I kind of pushed back and said, did you raise this alarm with the MTC?
That's your policy board.
And he said in retrospect no, I should have done that more.
The city's response, and they really stood by this at Wednesday's meeting and kind of drilled this home 'cause they got a little bit of pushback from the MTC, but that procurement was kind of a CATS issue.
All these issues with inspections and stuff with Louis gone, CATS has kind of cleared them up in 30 days or not.
Inspections are already underway.
So we have the city really saying, you know, this is a CATS' issue.
With Louis gone, we've gotten this figured out.
So then we had, you know, Ed Driggs and the mayor saying, well are you trying to just find someone to shoot or get it the issue of the problem?
So once again saying, why are we even here?
Why are we doing this, what are we trying to achieve?
- And Jeff, Jeff you know, if I can cut in.
I mean the larger picture here that's really interesting about this is that yes, it was kind of a rowdy meeting.
I mean it was almost like pro wrestling, like one of the like, you know, like a battle royale, everybody had an opinion on something, seemed to be sort of, throwing someone under the bus, so to speak, you know, a lot of tension, which is as Ely said, unusual for these sorts of meetings.
But the bigger picture is, you know, part of the vision for CATS going forward for the new light rail line is this regional vision that we'll all work together with our regional partners to forge a consensus on where we need to move forward.
There certainly didn't look like a lot of consensus the other night at this meeting where you had essentially the mayors of Mecklenburg's towns, you know, Davidson, Huntersville, Pineville, Mint Hill, and then the county commissioner, Lee Altman, really at odds with the city that controls the purse.
So the larger question I think is how do we go forward regionally if, you know, if there are divisions like that, which are, you know, have been unusual, that is unusual, But it's, you know, if the vision is we're all gonna work together for the betterment of our region, you know, this doesn't necessarily advance that.
I've pulled this document offline.
It's a, it describes how planning is supposed to happen regionally under the auspices of the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization.
And it says the Metropolitan Transit Commission is a policy board for Charlotte Area Transit System, has the responsibility for reviewing and recommending all long range public transportation plans.
The board reviews the transit system and makes recommendations to the affected government.
So in a way, if this document is more or less describing how the MTC is defined, that's what their role is, to recommend, not to instruct, not to order anything.
So I guess if you read this, the city, the mayor, Ed Driggs, they have a point don't they?
- They do, but you know, the MTC also technically has the power to fire the CEO, which is a weird power to invest in an advisory board.
And yeah, that was another thing that the kind of, the one thing everyone seemed to agree on at this meeting is hey, this structure is almost three decades old and this doesn't make a lot of sense.
So, you know, maybe we should revisit it.
That was, if there was one point of consensus, I would say it was that.
I think people gotta remember too that while the city spends the money, this is a county tax that funds what they spend and so everybody's tax dollars are involved, not just, not just city tax dollars.
Hey, one last question on this issue.
Our friend Jim Morrill wrote a column for you this week in the Ledger Tony talking about whether the county, or the city manager rather might be on the hot seat over all this.
Any sense of how much blame will go to Marcus Jones when it comes time for his annual review by the city?
- Yeah, Ed Driggs did tell us, did tell Jim Morrill in that piece that we had yesterday that Driggs said that, you know, this probably will be reflected in Marcus Jones' evaluation this year when, you know, annually they review his performance, recommend raises.
But he did say this is a negative mark, but there are a lot of positive marks too.
You know, Driggs is very much we need to keep this whole thing in perspective and not just, you know, focus on one thing.
You know, the city manager has been criticized really for, he's a very private person.
He's low key, he's under the radar.
This is sort of, this CATS issue is really sort of testing that approach.
And he said well I realize now I need to be out there.
I need to be out front a little bit more.
So he talked to us, I know he talked to, to the Observer, to Genna I think earlier this week or last week.
So I think he's making an effort to be more out front, but he is catching a little bit of flack in a way that he hasn't really caught before in his six or seven years here.
- Yeah, I know CATS is not the only issue that the city manager deals with, but it seems to be the only issue a lot of people are concerned about right now.
So I guess that's something that we'll talk more about as the weeks continue.
I wanna change gears and head out to Eastland Mall, Eastland Yards, excuse me, and the project that's developing out there.
There's already dirt being moved and, and construction will start coming out of the ground in next couple of weeks or so.
But some competing projects for the recreational part of this project and a new project, a new plan project that came to light this week that kind of adds one more option to the mix.
I know that both Tony and Genna wrote about this.
Who wants to take first crack at what's happening at Eastland this week?
- Well, I'll jump in.
You know they've been, the city council has been considering a few different proposals out there.
We knew that coming into this week there was a proposal for a Target, there's a proposal for an aquatic center, and there's a proposal for a tennis facility.
But the new one this week is a proposal from a entertainment group combined with a eSports group combined with Charlotte Soccer Academy to build a mix of a concert venue, eSports, STEM education center, and youth athletic fields.
So they released that this week.
You know it's the next one in the mix.
They say it would require less public money than some of the other options, than the tennis and the swim facility.
You know, we'll see what happens there.
It's my understanding there could be another proposal waiting out there in the wings.
We're gonna find out early next week.
You know, the city council is expected to discuss this on Monday.
- Response from the neighborhood.
I know they have a lot of interest in what happens at Eastland.
They're generally pleased with the idea of turning that into something new.
But that one aspect of the project, what happens in that, what 80 acres or so is, is important to them.
What's the response been from Charlotte East Neighborhood Association to what's being proposed this week versus what's been proposed in the past?
- Well I talked to some of 'em in the last few days and you know, they definitely would like something to go in there.
You know, the land is being cleared for another section of the project in which they're gonna build apartments.
Senior housing, the plan has a little bit of retail.
This is for a different section of Eastland.
They would like something to go in there and they're eager for something to go in there and have been for the last decade plus.
I don't know that they're super enthusiastic about any of these projects.
The latest one, you know, they said well, does it make sense to have a concert venue on the same site as senior housing, for example, and does it make sense, what's gonna happen with the parking?
So there are a lot of questions.
You know, I think the east side is very eager to get something going, but I think they wanna make sure it's a good fit.
- Depends on the concert, I guess right?
Genna, what's been the, what's the response from city council?
In particular one council member who really likes this new plan 'cause he's part of it right?
- Right yeah, but talking about residents though, I was just gonna say there is a lot of, I don't know if trauma is too strong of a word, but definitely a lot of hesitancy from the neighbors who have really seen this site kind of sit empty for a long time.
And a lot of 'em feel like it's been a broken promise from the city to build something there.
So at this point they wanna see something soon and they want it to be the right thing.
But yeah, you're right.
There is one city council member who is really happy about this and that's Tariq Bakari and he actually won't be voting on it because of his minority ownership stake in the eSports company that would make up this kind of tech element of this newest bid that we saw.
So you have these soccer fields and outdoor venues outside that like Tony was talking about and this tech hub inside that would have, Tariq's talked abut these, you know, workforce development opportunities and STEM programs.
- Yeah, and.
- Go ahead.
- Oh, I was just gonna say, you know, neighbors, people I know who live in the area who I've talked with about this this week, honestly, they seem not too enthusiastic about any of the big picture proposals.
Like they're nice in theory.
But they really want a grocery store open and running there and some basic neighborhood amenities like that.
I'd say a lot of people I know who live there are, you know, like hey, we want a place to buy fresh food, eSports hub, okay, whatever.
- And the Target store wouldn't cost taxpayers a dollar.
This would be a completely privately funded, you know, aspect of this if they were to go forward with that option.
Yeah I know that the Charlotte East group says, this is our shot after decades of nothing happening out at Eastland, this is a chance to do it right.
And you wanna do it right.
You know, because you don't get a chance to do it over most likely.
So anyway, something we'll talk about in the next couple of months.
I think 60 days is when those proposals have to come back with updates and refresh, refresh details.
So we'll talk more coming, in the coming shows ahead.
I wanna talk about CMS for a couple of minutes, couple of things that CMS was in the news for this week.
Let's start with those boundaries between the schools.
Tony, I know that you've written a lot about this in the Ledger.
The conflict between diversity in some of these schools, socioeconomic diversity versus distance and just how neighbors and parents feel about having their kids farther away from the schools that they ultimately attend.
I know that the CMS is leaning heavily on the diversity thing, but, you know, what's your sense of what parents want beyond diversity when it comes to the other aspects that, that influence these decisions?
- Yeah, I mean a lot of times, you know, in government you think about okay, can we find a win-win?
Can we find something that's satisfies, can we find a consensus?
And I think there's really none to be had here because when you're talking about shifting around school boundaries, you're gonna have people affected in different ways.
A lot of people are happy with the way things are now, some are not.
We're adding, the plan is to add a couple more schools.
There's one opening, the high school in the Valentine area, not this coming school year, but the following one.
So you're gonna have to shift people around.
And it's hard to draw these boundaries because of the ways, because of where people live.
You know, CMS wants to try to balance socioeconomic diversity, but that's not how we live.
That's not how our city and pretty much all cities are set up.
You have pockets of wealthy people and you have pockets of not so wealthy people.
And how do you, how do you find a, how do you strike a balance between that and making sure that people can go to school close to home, and that you're setting up schools for success.
It's a very tough balancing act and parents perceive different things.
And so there are gonna be winners and there are gonna be losers.
You know, not to say that people are getting a bad education at any of these schools that we're talking about, but you know, it's a very sensitive thing and it's a very emotional thing about where your kid goes to school and you don't wanna feel as though your child is being used you know, in some sort of a social experiment, or is, you know, you want what is best for your child.
And so you have a lot of people, especially in South Charlotte when these things come up, advocating for what they think is best for their child.
- Yeah, I know CMS this week said that when they got feedback from parents, the highest priority was socioeconomic balance.
But when you drive through neighborhoods in South Charlotte, you don't see yard signs for socioeconomic balance, but you do see yard signs saying, keep our kids together, save our neighborhood schools, keep this school going to Myers Park or whatever.
You know, I just wonder if the undercurrent that those yard signs represent is larger than CMS makes it out to be.
Any thoughts on that?
- Yeah, I mean, I think that it's one of those things where like a lot of the issues here, affordable housing, transit, you know, whatever it might be, people are generally supportive in theory.
You know, lots of people say yeah, transit is good.
Yeah, affordable housing is good, people should have somewhere to live.
And then you say great, do you want it behind your house?
And people say, whoa, whoa, no, that's a terrible idea.
I think a lot of times, you know, with changing school boundaries, you get the same reaction.
Yes, diversity is good, but it's also, you know, it's a tricky problem for CMS because it's like one of those triangle, it's like a triangle where you can have two of the same legs, socioeconomic diversity, keeping kids close to home, you know, avoiding pockets of poverty.
But when you, it's hard to have all three at the same time.
You're kind of always sacrificing one.
And, you know, CMS is also kind of, the board is resetting their bigger student reassignment review that they're supposed to do every six months.
So, you know they're kind of stepping back and saying like hey, should we do this differently district wide?
And then you have to remember, this is also the year they want to pass the biggest bond ever.
They want voters to approve maybe up to $3 billion.
And, you know, controversial plan is, is really tougher to push right now because, you know, you've gotta come to these same neighborhoods in just, you know, less than seven months now and say alright, like, let us write the biggest check ever please taxpayers.
- Yeah, the same neighbors who aren't, are the same parents who aren't pleased now may be the ones that have to vote yes on these bonds for them to pass and that's an issue.
By the way, they're also in the process of choosing a new superintendent.
Today's the day, actually, they're supposed to narrow it down to two or three finalists, but they are secret candidates undergoing secret interviews.
And the CMS says that's all well and good and legal, but is it, you know, is it, you know, again, you get the sense that parents and the public would like to know more about who's gonna lead this school system coming up right?
and you know, in the past the like two or three finalists have sometimes had public interviews, public tours.
Where they are right now in the process where they've still got six candidates they've said, you know, I don't think we've generally seen all of them.
But we won't know any of the finalists and we won't know who else was considered.
What they keep saying is that that's necessary to get the best candidates because they don't want people to be worried like oh, should I apply for this?
Because then my current school district will know I'm looking.
But it's gonna be really interesting to see who's picked and not know who else was in the running.
And I think there's gonna be some objections to that.
- Yep, school system says more confidential, more confidentiality means better candidates.
But again, when you don't know who's the competition was, it's hard to kind of, you know, maybe unify behind them right off the bat.
Hey, a couple of other issues I wanna touch on in the last couple of minutes.
Mark Robinson, Lieutenant Governor, says he's running for Governor.
If elected he would be the first black governor in North Carolina history, but he's also maybe the most controversial Governor in North Carolina history if elected.
Can we talk a little bit about how he changes the dynamic of the race and if other Republicans might challenge him?
- Well, there's one other Republican already in the race, State Treasurer Dale Falwell.
And I think Mark Walker is also expected pretty widely to be looking or to make a run.
But if you look at, you know, any polling that's been done so far, Robinson's kind of far and away the favorite.
But his history of saying anti-LGBT statements and other controversies, things he said about his positions on abortion, gun rights, you know, I think a lot of democrats like Josh Stein, who is the attorney general who's running, are probably feeling pretty good about taking him on because there's a lot for the opposition ads already out there.
And I think it kind of reminds me of the national dynamic around President Trump, where it's hard to imagine anyone else beating him in the primary, but it's also harder to see how he gets more of the centrist that he would need to get over the hump and win in a general election.
- Yeah, it does look like a mirror of what the presidential campaign might be as well, if it is indeed Mark Robinson versus Josh Stein.
Hey, we're gonna have to skip over the Huntersville issue, a big resort community that we'll talk about in future weeks because a lot of folks are upset about it.
The Panthers chose Bryce Young as their quarterback of the future last night.
And when David Tepper was asked about it, he talked about Super Bowls, plural.
Any thoughts on, you know, what this does for or against the Panthers when it comes to perception and fan satisfaction and that sort of thing?
- Lot of big hopes on quarterbacks, and we'll see what happens.
- Yeah, last time we chose a former Heisman Trophy winner.
It was Cam Newton with the first choice, and that worked out pretty well for a lot of years.
But a lot of folks wondering whether this quarterback is the kind of quarterback you can build a team around or not.
Interesting night on the outside, even in the rain, they had a lot of fans out there, you know, cheering them on.
And we'll see how that goes for the Panthers this season.
Both fans for the team and against the team will probably be anxious to see how the new quarterback pans out.
Hey, we're out of time.
A lot of good topics to talk about this week.
Always more, more topics than we have time.
But thanks to our panel of guest reporters for joining us.
Thank you for joining us at home as well.
If you wanna comment on what we talked about this week, send your comments or questions to email@example.com.
And thanks for joining us.
We'll see you next time right here on PBS Charlotte.
(gentle music) - [Narrator] A production of PBS Charlotte.