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Abdicating Her Throne

Activists and advocates reflect on Pam Syfert's legacy and a future without her

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City Manager Pam Syfert retired last week after more than a decade in the role, leaving behind a legacy dominated by light rail and Uptown development. Her record on housing and environmental issues has been less examined, partly because of voters' interests and partly because Mecklenburg County government often has more hands in many human service and air quality-related issues.

Nevertheless, she does leave behind a reputation on such subjects. Depicted in the pages of Creative Loafing as quietly steamrolling over those who disagreed with her and discounting, even dismissing, public opinion, Syfert attracted ardent opponents and supporters, just like the light rail project she was so closely linked with and castigated for.

Just as her record on such contentious issues attracted strong opinions, so did her record on less attention-grabbing concerns. CL asked several housing and environmental activists what they thought of Syfert's record:

• Carol Hardison Hughes, executive director of Crisis Assistance Ministry, thinks Syfert merits recognition for helping revitalize some ailing neighborhoods, as well as for acknowledging that "our economic engine is powered by low-income jobs."

• Donna Lisenby of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, was less of a fan. She says Syfert wasn't responsive to her conservationist concerns. "Anyone would be better, as far as environmental issues (are concerned)," she said when asked about what qualities she'd like to see in Syfert's successor.

Syfert, who spent 35 years with the city, including more than a decade as the top manager, is succeeded by Curt Walton. The Charlotte City Council promoted Walton, 49, to the post from assistant city manager.

Hughes says Syfert put a priority on helping revitalize neighborhoods.

"She was particularly supportive of fragile neighborhoods and helped lead several efforts in the affordable housing arena," says Hughes, citing neighborhoods such as Hidden Valley, Belmont and the West Boulevard area.

Hidden Valley, a modest working- and lower-middle-class neighborhood and one of the city's largest, is still struggling with crime and gang problems.

Belmont's property values are increasing, and the city drew criticism earlier this year when it tried to buy out local grocers that the city deemed magnets for crime.

West Boulevard has seen growth with relatively new strip malls and groundbreaking on a YMCA.

Christa Wagner, a former Sierra Club organizer in Charlotte who's since moved to the organization's Raleigh office, says Syfert should be remembered for her of support of incorporating hybrid vehicles into the city's fleet. The vehicles cost more to buy, but generally recoup the difference in fuel savings after several years.

But Lisenby says her organization, which advocates for a clean, preserved Catawba River, had little luck getting the ear of the city manager's office. She contends the office did little to reign in what she sees as excessive sewage spills by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities.

Now that Syfert's gone, here's what some observers hope Walton and the city will focus on:

• "I want to see them continue to focus on our light rail and our land use around that light rail," says Lisa Renstrom, a former national Sierra Club president who's also been active in local environmental issues. She says efforts to repeal the sales tax intended to fund transit "are not looking at the long-term best interests" of Charlotte.

"I want to see them focus on the commitments that the city council has made toward reducing carbon emissions," Renstrom adds. "The land use and how we continue to allocate resources and grow is primary."

• Bill Newnan, executive director of the Uptown Shelter, says he'd like to see more cooperation between the city council and county commission, and less bickering about which government has responsibility for handling what service.

"There's a continuing dialogue about what the city provides and what the county provides," says Newnan, whose shelter off North Tryon Street provides meals, housing and other services for homeless men. "If the city manager were put in to find areas of common ground ..."

Generally, the city handles housing issues while the county handles human services. Some elected officials take issue with that division and even whether local governments should handle such matters at all.

Some estimates indicate the ranks of Charlotte's homeless have grown to as many as 8,000 people, and the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment exceeds what most low-wage workers can afford.

"I think, quite frankly, it's too big of a job for the city or the county to tackle on their own," Newnan says. "We (need to) look at this as a community issue as opposed to what jurisdiction I am."

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