Fourth graders at Coddle Creek Elementary School put Mooresville’s new mayor on the spot this week, peppering him with questions about taxes, the perks of his office and — what else? — apartments and traffic.
The kids have been learning about state government and gathered in the school library on Tuesday to talk with Mayor Chris Carney and ask him pointed questions about government and the future of our town. In fact, somehow the group of super-sleuths got the mayor to break two pieces of significant town news during his visit!
Carney said his top goal as mayor is to return a customer-service attitude to local government because even though one student credited the mayor for “basically running the entire city,” Carney replied, “Actually, the citizens are really in charge … when your parents go to the ballot to vote.”
He asked for a show of hands for supporters of Josh’s Farmers Market. Many hands immediately shot up. The mayor told the kids that the town board next week will consider approving an outdoor market ordinance to make Josh’s Farmers Market a legal operation in town again. The announcement was met with sighs of relief and cheers. “Oh yeah!” one student exclaimed.
The students grilled the mayor on apartments, traffic and road improvements. One young girl mentioned that her dad recently drove by more apartments being built on Faith Road. “That frustrates your dad, right?” Carney asked, quick to empathize.
That is, after all, why he decided to run for mayor: “I was frustrated over apartments and roads … probably the same reasons your parents are frustrated,” he said.
However, he announced, in March the town board plans to consider a new ordinance that would significantly slow the building of apartments in Mooresville. The board also plans to set aside a portion of the town budget each year for road improvements. “We want to fund as many road projects as we can instead of all of them being funded by the state,” Carney said. “That way your parents’ money is going back to fixing local roads.”
Carney said decisions like these — “to take things I hear from your parents and make things better” — are the single most important part of his job as mayor.
What’s the most exciting part? “When we do something good, like build a park or sidewalk, we get to see that happen quickly,” he said, explaining that it isn’t always like that in state government.
And he would know. Carney first became interested in local government when he ran for Mooresville town commissioner in 2004. With their quick math calculations, the Coddle Creek fourth graders determined — and not very modestly — that Carney entered local government a whole decade before they were even born!
Brushing off a slightly bruised ego, the mayor went on to tell the kids that he was selected as mayor pro tem while serving as commissioner, then he was appointed to the N.C. Senate. After that, he spent 10 years with his family outside of public service before deciding to run for mayor.
One student asked about Carney’s opponent last year for the mayor’s seat. “He’s a good guy,” Carney answered. “We both put our ideas out to people, and they liked my ideas a little better so they voted for me.”
He explained that a mayor serves for two years — commissioners serve a four-year term — and he has pledged not to serve as mayor more than three terms, or six years total, because “new ideas and new energy need to come in behind.”
“What was your reaction when you were elected?” a young girl named Bianca asked.
“I was very excited!” Carney said. “We had put a lot of work into it.”
A student asked what the mayor does daily. “I sign a lot of contracts and attend a lot of meetings,” he said, pointing out that his job does not include voting on matters that go before the board … unless there’s a tie. “And if it comes to a tie, we probably could have done something better,” Carney said.
One student asked how the mayor ensures fair and equal rights for all citizens. “Empathy and listening,” he answered. “I’ve never walked in anybody else’s shoes.”
The fourth graders were a little disappointed to learn that the mayor isn’t provided a complimentary home or “free stuff.”
“No separate houses, no limos, no private jets,” the mayor said, smiling. “If we paid for those things (for public officials), we’d have to raise taxes.”
“Can you change taxes?” one student asked. “Can you lower my taxes?”
The government sets taxes — most recently, taxes went up even while the tax rate went down, the mayor explained — and those taxes are paid when parents buy things or own a home or a car. “And if they’re not happy with what the government does with that money, what do they do?” Carney asked.
“VOTE!” the students answered enthusiastically.
“That’s right,” the mayor said. “They vote for someone else and decide to make a change.”
He encouraged the kids to convince their teachers to take them on a field trip to Town Hall, where they can sit in chairs “and you can maybe even vote on something!”
The students’ enthusiasm showed they were certainly on board with that idea.
As they filed out of the library, several of the kids stopped by to shake the mayor’s hand, and some even asked for his autograph!
A young boy approached. “Do you know Joe Cooke?” he humbly asked the mayor.
“Joe Cooke, the police officer?” Carney replied excitedly. “Of course I know him!”
“That’s my dad,” the youngster said, then started walking back to class.
And just like that, a new hero emerged in the room. “Hey, tell your dad I said hey!” the mayor yelled to the young Cooke over the noise of the crowded room. “I rode in his police car once!”
Joe Cooke is now assistant chief at the Mooresville Police Department.