Usually it’s hard to squeeze personnel matters discussed in closed session out of city councilors. That’s why the August 25 leaking of a confidential Mayor Mike Signer-written memo to City Manager Maurice Jones demanding explanations of the events leading up to the August 12 hate rally was such a shocker—as was Jones firing back a response that included the mayor’s threats to fire him.
And in the latest sign of a City Council in turmoil since outraged citizens commandeered its August 21 meeting to voice anger over the violent Unite the Right rally, a closed special meeting has been called for August 30 to “discuss the performance and discipline of an elected official,” according to the notice.
“It’s rather extraordinary,” says former mayor Dave Norris. “I can’t recall another time when the mayor and city manager were going after each other publicly with press releases or memos and trying to throw each other under the bus.”
The nine-page leaked memo calls out Jones for taking vacation before the rally, for not deciding to move the hate fest to McIntire Park until a week before the event, for not having police posted at Congregation Beth Israel synagogue and for “the apparent unwillingness of officers to directly intervene during overt assaults captured in many videos in the time before the unlawful assembly was declared and after it was declared.”
The memo also takes aim at city spokesperson Miriam Dickler, and cites an email from Signer to Jones in which he says her refusal to work with crisis communications firm Powell/Tate “bordered on insubordination” and was “exhausting for me to deal with.”
And the confidential file devotes nearly a page to Signer not being allowed in the command center in the Wells Fargo building, where he came despite Jones and Police Chief Al Thomas asking him not to. And it was there, according to Jones’ rebuttal memo, that Signer threatened to fire him.
“On two separate occasions during the height of the crisis, the Mayor threatened my job and that of the police chief because of our concerns about allowing him to be part of the command center,” he wrote. “He said, ‘You work for me’ and I replied that ‘I worked for the City Council.’”
“Typically during emergencies, it’s the city manager and police chief who have the lead roles,” says Norris. In the past, “the mayor and councilors didn’t try to micromanage.”
Because Charlottesville uses a council-manager type of government, the mayor does not have the CEO job like the mayor of Houston does, says Norris. “In a crisis, the mayor and City Council need to be in the loop, but we have professionals and they don’t need a part-time politician to be in the room.”
The councilors who responded to C-VILLE Weekly were not pleased with the leakage. “I didn’t like it,” says Fenwick. “I didn’t do it. And it’s not moving us forward.” Fenwick declined to say who he thought leaked the memo, but he says the memo itself appears to blame Jones and Thomas for the violent encounters August 12 that left Heather Heyer dead and dozens injured.
And he notes that Signer was on vacation the same time he was accusing Jones of being on holiday.
Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy declined to comment on the leakage, and Councilor Kathy Galvin did not respond to an email. Councilor Kristin Szakos calls the breach “appalling,” and says it “erodes trust and makes it difficult to work together.”
Szakos says the memo was a compilation of councilors’ concerns, but did not reflect the concerns of City Council as a whole. “It was not something we had gotten together on,” she says. In the memo with its 17 issues that ask Jones to “please provide an explanation,” two are from other councilors: Szakos with an email asking where the police were during accounts of violence, and one from Galvin conveying concerns about the vulnerability of Friendship Court residents.
Jones’ public response to the Signer memo was justified, says Szakos, because the memo was “one-sided” and did not include answers he had given to councilors in the August 24 closed-door meeting. And some of the memo points, she says, “turned out to not be factual.”
“I think it was Mike Signer,” says independent council candidate Nikuyah Walker. “I haven’t talked to anyone who doesn’t think he did this.”
Signer did not respond to a call from C-VILLE about the perception by many that he’s the leaker.
Signer was a fixture in the national spotlight the week after the rally, and was called a “hero” by the Jewish newspaper Forward. But at the August 21 council meeting, Charlottesville again made national news for the chaos and the mayor’s total loss of control over the meeting. Protesters mounted the dais holding a sign that said, “Blood on your hands.”
City councilors faced demands that they resign. Signer declared the meeting canceled, and left for about 10 minutes.
In an August 24 Facebook post, Signer explained his absence: “I needed to talk and meet with and reassure my very worried wife, which I felt I had no option but to do.”
Walker doesn’t buy that explanation. “He had become upset because he couldn’t handle [the meeting],” she says. “He thought the rest would follow him. That’s not what happened. That was just his excuse for not being able to handle the criticism.”
“I don’t think that was a shining moment on the City Council, when the mayor abandoned ship and left four councilors,” says Norris. “I’ve got to commend [Vice-Mayor] Wes Bellamy for stepping up and throwing the rules out the window, and running it as a town hall.”
Norris declined to say who he thinks spilled the memo, but offers this: “Anytime there is a leak of information, there’s a strategic reason for it being leaked. These don’t happen accidentally. Clearly someone had a motivation for releasing that memo that tries to put the city staff and police in a bad light and put council and the mayor in a good one.”