ELKHART — Democratic candidate for Elkhart mayor Rod Roberson says his campaign is not about politics, but public service.
He served 16 years on the City Council, from 2000 to 2015, and has led Church Community Services.
“The only thread I can pull through each one of those relationships is service,” he said. “When people ask me, why me, I say it’s a natural extension of who I am.”
So what kind of service could the residents of Elkhart expect if Roberson becomes mayor?
“It’s one thing to fix the potholes and make sure that the streets are paved and the snow is removed,” he said. “But it’s another thing to feel as though you are getting service like you’ve never received it before. You feel as though the people that are working for the city are working for you.”
That includes having a police department that is well supported and delivers open and transparent communication to the city’s residents, he said. Roberson will push the department to give information to the public on a regular basis. He said he would also involve stakeholders throughout the community and make sure the department is engaged with the residents.
“That will be a part of an education process that we will have on a regular basis in some of our most challenged neighborhoods,” he said.
Roberson promised to hold town halls and be an active part of them.
As the city is under redevelopment, Roberson envisions a different approach to neighborhood improvement.
“I also would like to begin the process of creating the kind of strategic modeling for neighborhoods all throughout the city, so that they can then become a platform for the same kind of revitalization that will occur in the River District,” he said.
He wants to create a planning process and guidelines for growth that can be used by both the administration and the City Council. That way, he believes, initiatives will be taken in the right order and work in the same direction.
That approach would be implemented for other tasks as well, including public safety, parks and keeping the city clean.
“ ... So that we’re not taking various projects and just plugging them in and creating acrimony,” Roberson said.
The Democrat also wants to create a new nonpolitical process for appointing department leaders. He said he has no one preselected for those jobs and that he will make no promises before the election is in the past.
“But everyone that is doing a good job inside of the city should reapply for these department head jobs. These positions are going to be service-oriented, they’re going to create that culture that I spoke about,” he said.
No matter who becomes mayor, one of the targets of the new administration will be to diversify the local economy, which is largely dependent on the RV industry. That led to an unemployment rate of 20% in 2009, as the industry was hit particularly hard by the Great Recession.
Roberson supports the current administration’s efforts to create an Elkhart 2040 plan, which is, in part, working to address this issue. But how that plan is implemented will depend on Tim Neese’s successor.
“I want to make sure that we’re supporting our bread and butter, which is RV,” Roberson said. “But I also want to make sure that we’re looking at the opportunity to build out along this fiber network. I believe the fiber network is going to provide us with the platform to be able to grow the number of businesses.”
But in order to attract more business not necessarily RV-related, the first step is creating a city that people want to move to, he said. The city is already moving in that direction with the River District revitalization, Roberson believes.
Another element that could contribute to attracting people to live in Elkhart is an improved educational system. Elkhart Community Schools, where Roberson is employed as an energy and risk management specialist, has received disappointing test results in recent years. Roberson, to the extent that a mayor can, wants to help improve that.
One way to do that is to improve amenities, such as parks, that are used by students, Roberson said. The schools and the city also need to be better at working together.
“We are partners, no matter whether or not we are fighting over or having discussions about crossing guards or other challenging issues,” he said.
Roberson’s personal finances have been under scrutiny during the campaign, as the candidate went through a house foreclosure during the Great Recession. Roberson said his income was severely decreased in those years, when he worked in sales for Coachmen RV.
As a consequence of the foreclosure and his inability to pay several bills, Roberson faced multiple lawsuits. He said the situation was made worse by a life-threatening case of pneumonia, making him unable to work.
An unrelated lawsuit claims that Roberson was negligent in a crash in the summer of 2018. Roberson was not cited or charged in the crash.
The local political action committee Best for Elkhart has criticized Roberson for his financial history, saying a person who cannot pay his bills is not fit to be mayor.
Roberson said he has now paid back all his creditors. He believes his health and financial struggles have made him more focused on service and prepared him for being mayor.
Should that happen, Roberson would create Elkhart history by becoming the city’s first African American mayor. The meaning of that milestone is not lost on Roberson, but it is not what drives him.
“It hasn’t mattered as much as all the other things I’ve been talking about. And I consistently say and believe that I would like to be the best mayor the city has ever had that happens to be an African American,” he said. “It’s not about the color of my skin or the culture that I know I am a member of. It’s really about making sure that all of these residents are getting what they should get from a mayor.”
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus
A profile of Republican mayoral candidate Dave Miller was published Thursday.