In a half-hour debate Thursday organized by the League of Women Voters, Charlotte's two mayoral candidates went head-to-head on a variety of city issues. Democrat Vi Lyles and Republican Kenny Smith differed on taxes, tolls and city priorities. But they started by agreeing on one thing - the need for new leadership as they compete to replace current Democratic mayor Jennifer Roberts.
Smith said he'll be a different kind of leader than Roberts:
"First and foremost, we will work with all members of council. I've got a reputation of working across party lines," Smith said. "[The council has] two Republicans, nine Democrats, so if I want to get anything done, I have to communicate and work with folks on the other side of the aisle."
Smith said he'll focus on what he called the "basics" of city government - public safety, infrastructure and economic opportunity.
Lyles wasn't ready to let Smith own the role of change candidate.
"You know because I did challenge the current mayor in the primary that of course that I believe the leadership needed to change. I believe in collaborative leadership. I believe working with the council, but more importantly going out into the community and working with the community to know what is on their minds what to do," she said.
For Lyles, the big issues are jobs, affordable housing, and safe neighborhoods.
The two candidates also agreed on the importance of expanding the city's transit system, and on letting voters decide on a new half-cent sales tax to pay for it. But they didn’t see eye to eye on the NCDOT’s plan for tolls on I-77 and other roads.
"I opposed toll lanes when the vote was put to us," Smith said. "I stood up to the general assembly, I stood up to members of the business community, chamber of commerce and development community that were pushing hard for it. I thought it was a bad deal for citizens."
In that council vote last year, Lyles noted that council directed her to vote in favor of the tolls at the regional transportation planning group, where she is the city’s representative.
"I don't think anybody wants toll roads. We know that. But the question is how do we pay for roads at all? Tolls are basically a user fee. There is still going to be free access on those lanes where we have tolls," Lyles said.
When moderator Jeff Sonier asked about the city's lack of economic mobility, and taxes, Lyles talked about keeping down property taxes in her previous role as city budget director.
"I've done over 22 budgets without a tax increase, including those on the council. And I know what the impact is when we have people that can't afford taxes because of the growing value of property in the city," Lyles said.
Smith shot back: "As budget director she may have done it without a tax increase. As a member of council she voted for a tax increase. It's about priorities. We need to again look at what's the basic role of government - infrastructure, safety, jobs."
Lyles said there was more to that vote - the council also cut fees, which she said resulted in an overall lower burden on most residents.
The debate will air on WTVI PBS Charlotte Tuesday night at 8 and 11p.m. and again before the election.