The first meeting of the new City Council January 2 went into uncharted territory with formerly behind-the-scenes decisions—the new mayor and vice mayor—made publicly, and for some on the dais, uncomfortably. New councilors Nikuyah Walker and Heather Hill were elected mayor and vice mayor, respectively, while the airing of the grievances allowed some rebukes and score settling among councilors.
Senior Councilor Kathy Galvin wanted the mayor’s job, and she had several supporters endorse her during public comment, to catcalls from some attendees. Ultimately she didn’t have the votes, and she ended up being the single “no” in Walker’s 4-1 election as mayor.
With City Manager Maurice Jones leading the meeting—and calling disruptive citizens to order—the councilors made statements, nominations and expressed concerns about their fellow officials.
Hill, who nominated Galvin, her North Downtown neighbor, acknowledged that Galvin’s experience on council might not be enough. “We need a new direction,” she said, and pointed to Walker.
The concern with Walker for Hill—and for Galvin and former mayor Mike Signer—was Walker’s unwillingness to meet and make nice with her new colleagues on council before the January 2 meeting.
Walker explained that she planned no meetings before the new year, and that she found congratulatory emails sent by Signer, whose resignation she repeatedly called for last year, and Galvin “not authentic.”
Said Walker, “I’m comfortable with making people uncomfortable.”
“I am considering voting for Nikuyah Walker,” said Signer. “It’s awkward to talk critically about your potential colleagues going forward for a two-year or four-year term. That’s the reason this decision is done beforehand.”
He wondered whether Walker would be able to work with him. “You’ve said some very hard things about me personally,” he said.
“While you were talking about removing the personal,” replied Walker, “I don’t think people understand how difficult my campaign was, and you, in particular, made it very difficult.”
Days before the election, the Daily Progress ran an article headlined, “Emails show Walker’s aggressive approach.” Signer admitted sharing emails that demonstrated Walker’s “profane attacks” against staff.
Said Walker, “Talking about official council business is one thing,” but she said she didn’t feel it was necessary “to pretend” the congratulations were sincere. When Signer pressed her about whether she could get past their previous interactions, Walker reminded him that she did speak to him when he entered the room.
“There is no returning back to normal,” said Wes Bellamy, who nominated Walker and defended the unruly City Councils of the past year that have led to the meetings being suspended.
Except for the first council meeting following the deadly August 12 rally, which was turned into a town hall after sign-carrying demonstrators leapt on the dais and shut down the meeting, “We have never not been able to get city business done.”
“I haven’t been grandstanding,” said Galvin, nor does she “seek the limelight,” a barb that seemed pointed toward Signer, who was taken to the woodshed by his fellow councilors after the Unite the Right rally for forgetting that the mayor’s role is ceremonial and to lead the meetings, but otherwise is an equal with the other councilors. “The way I’d be as mayor would be the way I’ve been as councilor.”
Signer seemed to have his own ax to grind with Galvin, and said the long emails she sends to city staff were burdensome and caused “friction.”
“I will never stop asking questions,” said Galvin, who suggested her colleagues relied on her detail-oriented efforts. “I will never vote for anything I do not understand.”
Galvin asked Walker whether she could do the job as mayor with all the reading involved, which Walker supporters Dave Norris called “condescending” and Jalane Schmidt said was “patronizing.”
“I would venture to guess that [Walker] knows more about the budget than many people who have served on council,” says Norris, a former mayor. “I thought her response was perfect: ‘There is a learning curve and I’m up for it.’”
And Walker offered her own critique of Galvin’s performance on council: “Kathy, you appear to listen but you don’t hear.”
Once Walker was elected mayor, Bellamy lost the job of vice mayor when fellow incumbents Signer and Galvin threw their votes to Hill, giving her a 3-2 win.
Signer appeared still sore that Bellamy voted December 18 against the plan to give Atlanta developer John Dewberry a tax break to get the derelict Landmark Hotel finally under construction again. “It’s hard to work consistently when assurances are broken,” he said to Bellamy, a characterization Bellamy disputed.
“There was definitely a Festivus feel to it with the airing of the grievances,” says Norris, referring to a “Seinfeld” episode. “Overall it was very positive. You definitely got a sense of councilors’ strengths and weaknesses.”
The public process to elect a mayor was unprecedented, but fit in with Walker’s pledge to bring transparency to how government is run, says Norris. “It’s messy. It’s awkward at times. And to restore trust in government, one way to do that is to bring more decision-making to the public.”
He’s enthusiastic about Walker and Hill being the new faces of City Council. “There was a lot of frustration about the direction of the city,” says Norris. “I think it’s a good move to put fresh faces of people who are unencumbered. The election was anti-incumbent.”
Schmidt applauds the “uncomfortable” public process of choosing a mayor, and notes, as did Walker, that minorities are used to feeling uncomfortable every day. Having Walker front and center on City Council—“That’s going to be uncomfortable for people used to calling the shots,” says Schmidt. ”And people who have been made to feel uncomfortable now have a voice.”
She also says Walker could be a calming effect on the “rambunctious” council meetings.
Walker was blunt about taking the job of mayor and said it would be a challenge. She said she learned a lot from running a campaign, and intends to do that with her new part-time position. “I will figure it out,” she vowed.
City’s first black mayor elected 44 years ago
When Charles Barbour was elected to City Council in 1970, he gave Democrats a 3-2 edge in an era when Republicans were still on council. And in 1974, he was elected the city’s first black mayor.
Barbour was one of two councilors who voted to close Main Street and turn it into a pedestrian mall in 1974. The controversial decision passed 2-0 because the other councilors had to abstain because of conflict-of-interest concerns. His fellow yes-vote, Mitch Van Yahres, called him “the father of the Downtown Mall,” and Barbour dedicated the mall in 1976.
He didn’t always vote with his fellow Dem councilors, though, and saw himself as more of a swing vote.
Then, like today, race was an issue, and Barbour took stands on divisive issues. He got the city to stop having events at Fry’s Spring Beach Club because in the early ’70s, it was segregated, and he pressed to have two black Charlottesville School Board members rather than one.
Updated January 9 with Charles Barbour sidebar.