Chris Roberts, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, was elected mayor of Shoreline, Washington, in January by his colleagues on the City Council. He’s one of at least two Washington mayors who are Native American – the other is Fircrest Mayor Matthew Jolibois, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians – and one of a growing number of Native leaders elected to positions outside of Native government in the Evergreen State.
Shoreline has a population of 55,000 and is Washington’s 20th largest city.
Roberts earned undergraduate, graduate and PhD degrees in political science from Willamette University, University at Albany SUNY, and University of Washington, respectively. He lectured at SUNY Albany and UW, served as a legislative assistant for the Oregon State Legislature, directed the Washington State Democrats’ Native Vote, and is now a consultant with a firm specializing in campaigns for state and municipal candidates. He is also a board member of the Seattle Indian Center. He has served on the Shoreline City Council since 2010.
Shoreline has a council-manager form of government, so the position of mayor is largely ceremonial. But, as Roberts points out, the mayor can also set the agenda for the city. ICTMN caught up with Mayor Roberts on January 31 at the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians winter convention at the Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort. In this interview, he talks about the challenges facing his city – and what he’s doing to ensure Shoreline is a welcoming, inclusive community.
What are some of the larger challenges facing your city right now?
We’re a large urban city, so we have some large urban problems. We have light rail that’s going to be coming through our city, so that’s going to be a challenge. But the biggest thing we have to do as a council right now is to try to be inclusive and reach out to communities that have not traditionally participated in the government process and bring them in and make sure we have new voices to come to the council.
How is your population diversifying?
I think we’re about 65 percent white and 35 percent non-white and there are over 100 different languages spoken in the school district, so it’s a very rapidly changing community.
You neighbor Seattle, and Seattle is facing a lot of issues I’m sure you are familiar with: homelessness, economic disparity, public safety, transportation, livability of the community. Do you share those issues?
We share a lot of issues in common. Homelessness – the one-night count was over 4,500 people within King County. We think there are more that weren’t counted. As a council, we have supported King County’s declaration of emergency. With Seattle’s mayor, we are working to try to figure out what we can do to get more housing and partner with organizations to really address some of those things.
The cities can’t really deal with homelessness individually, can they? To be effective, do all the cities have to work more collaboratively?
We do need a regional approach. The state also needs to be a partner in this in making sure we have more funding to build new housing for those at the lowest income levels. We also need to work to make sure the state gives the cities authority to give property tax credits for those who are providing affordable housing. Each city has to do its part, but the state also needs to do its part as well.
What is Shoreline’s commercial vacancy rate? Is Shoreline a strong city economically?
We are a strong city. I don’t know what our commercial vacancy rate is, but the commercial base is pretty strong. I am excited about two light-rail stations coming to Shoreline. The council is committed to working with the community as it transitions to transit-oriented development. In addition to the station areas, the city has a number of multi-unit buildings under construction or permitted.
Your service on the City Council – have you been able to help build some bridges and help people better understand Native America and Native Americans?
A little more. One of the things, there’s an amendment I proposed at the end of last year that would recognize Tribal ID cards as an official ID, an ID that could be useful within the city of Shoreline. It was approved. It’s one of a few things we’ve been doing.
What’s on your agenda as mayor? What are your top priorities?
Making sure Shoreline stays strong, and making sure everybody feels welcome and happy to live there.