Spence: Priorities homeless shelter, more entry-level jobs


Kem Spence


By Julian Eure
Managing Editor

Thursday, September 19, 2019

City Councilor Kem Spence says because 75 percent of Third Ward residents are like him, working class, they need a representative on City Council who understands working-class people’s values and concerns.

The 48-year-old unit manager at Pasquotank Correctional Institution believes he fits that bill and hopes Third Ward voters agree. He’s seeking re-election on Oct. 8 to a second consecutive two-year term and what would be his fourth council term overall.

“Since I’ve been on council, I’ve strived to make good, sound decisions,” said Spence, who served on council from 2011-15 before his current two-year term. “I do my homework. I’m accessible when people call me. ... I’m fair and consistent. I’m straight-forward. What you see is what you get.”

Spence said he’s seeking re-election because he simply enjoys public service.

“I enjoy what I do. I really do,” he said. “I feel I have been a good sound voice for citizens and city employees. I also feel we’ve made a good start as far as bringing in jobs and doing good things for the city.”

The other two candidates Spence will face in the Oct. 8 election for the Third Ward’s two seats are no strangers to him.

One is fellow Third Ward incumbent Rickey King, whom Spence lost his seat to in the 2015 city election. The other is Michael Brooks, a former Third Ward councilor whom Spence replaced when Brooks declined to formally seek re-election in 2017. Brooks ended up mounting a late write-in campaign but lost to King and Spence.

One of Spence’s priorities in a second term is seeing a homeless shelter in Elizabeth City reopened. The city closed its homeless shelter at 709 Herrington Road several years ago after the operator disbanded. Efforts to reopen it under a different operator have stalled, however, because of the condition of the facility, which is a former residential dwelling. The potential repair costs led city officials to look at other sites, including foreclosed properties the city owns. Council received repair estimates for those properties in April, but took no action because of the costs.

The state budget approved by state lawmakers in June contains a $100,000 earmark for a homeless shelter in Elizabeth City. But whether the city will ever see the money remains uncertain. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the budget and thus far, only one chamber of the Legislature has managed to override the veto.

Spence, who actually favors the city opening two shelters — one for homeless men, the other for homeless women and children — says he’s encouraged by the recent developments.

“I would like to see the homeless shelter come back. I know we’re working on that,” he said.

Spence said he’d also like to see the city do more to sponsor outreach activities for youth and what he described as “events to bring the city together.”

Though he’s happy with the work the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Economic Development Commission is doing — the agency recently helped two existing employers announce expansion plans that will help create 165 new jobs — Spence would like to see more done to bring in more of what he described as entry-level jobs.

“We need jobs in the trades and other areas that don’t require a lot of education or skills,” he said.

City Council recently voted to station a uniformed police officer outside the door at its closed sessions and to have a police officer escort members to their vehicles if they leave a closed session early.

Asked if he thought both decisions were necessary, Spence said he does, based on concerns he heard other councilors express about their safety.

“If there’s a concern on council, we need to address it,” he said. “I don’t believe I need security — it’s what I do for a living — but if one of our councilors wants it, we should provide it.”

Spence declined to say which councilors had expressed concerns about safety, noting the discussion had taken place during a closed session.

Asked if the entire discussion about safety at council’s closed sessions raises questions about the council’s ability to get along, he said he doesn’t think so.

“I’m not really concerned about what it may say about council,” he said. “In any organization where you’re making decisions you’re not going to agree with everything (that’s done). It’s part of being in an organization. Even in top-notch businesses you have disagreements.”

Spence also was asked to weigh in on allegations Brooks has made about being the victim of an unnecessary traffic stop by city police. During an appearance before City Council last month, Brooks alleged that a city officer pulled him over simply for waving at the officer. Brooks also claimed the officer then acted unprofessionally toward him.

City police Chief Eddie Buffaloe later disputed Brooks’ claims, saying in a press release that Brooks was pulled over for having a brake light out. Buffaloe also said after viewing video footage from both the police officer’s dash-cam and body-worn cameras, “nothing about Brooks’ encounter with the officer could be described as negative, unprofessional or improper in any way.”

Spence said he doesn’t know if the incident happened the way Brooks claims, but he said it’s his understanding the former city councilor hasn’t filed a formal complaint with police about it.

“In my opinion, the police department is working well,” Spence said. “We have a good police chief who is active in the community. I support our police officers and our police chief. I don’t see where that kind of issue (Brooks complained about) has happened.”

Spence also responded to questions about his own attendance record at council meetings. The Daily Advance reported in July that based on city records, Spence missed 16 of 39 council meetings between July 1, 2018 and June 30 of this year. That was the highest number of absences by any council member during that time frame. King and Second Ward Councilor Gabriel Adkins were tied for the second-largest number of absences: nine.

Spence said those absences happened following his job change at Pasquotank Correctional Institution. Spence said when he was first elected, his job was to recruit new prison employees. His job title changed, however, following the tragedy at the prison in October 2017, when four prison employees were killed in a failed escape attempt by four inmates.

After the tragedy, Spence was promoted to unit manager, a job that required him to work during hours that were often the same as when City Council meets. The prison’s staffing shortage made breaking away for meetings even harder, he said.

Since then, Spence says he’s worked with his supervisor on a schedule that allows him to attend council meetings. He said his more recent attendance record, including at council work sessions, has gotten better.

“We’ve got a schedule worked out so I can attend all my meetings now with no issues,” he said.

Spence was also asked about council’s exploration of returning to four-year terms for councilors. He said switching from two-year terms to the longer terms “may not be a bad idea.”

“By the time you get on council, your time is up and you have to run again,” he said. “So I don’t think it is a bad idea.”