Woodshed moment: Councilors rebuke and restrict mayor

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Mayor Mike Signer, center, falls on the sword surrounded by fellow councilors Bob Fenwick, Kristin Szakos, Kathy Galvin and Wes Bellamy, who could have voted to remove him from office.
Staff photo Mayor Mike Signer, center, falls on the sword surrounded by fellow councilors Bob Fenwick, Kristin Szakos, Kathy Galvin and Wes Bellamy, who could have voted to remove him from office. Staff photo

Charlottesville City Council now has a mayor on restriction. Council is made up of five elected equals, with the mayor playing a largely symbolic role, and that was a lesson Mayor Mike Signer appears to have forgotten. On August 30, his fellow councilors held a three-hour closed door meeting to discuss the “performance and discipline of an elected official.”

Afterward, Councilor Kathy Galvin said the elected officials had accepted Signer’s apology and were not requesting his resignation, a signal of the gravity of the confrontation.

It was a humbled Signer who read an apology to reporters and citizens gathered in council chambers. “In the deeply troubling and traumatizing recent weeks, I have taken several actions as mayor, and made several communications, that have been inconsistent with the collaboration required by our system of governance and that overstepped the bounds of my role as mayor, for which I apologize to my colleagues and the people of Charlottesville.”

The only “ill-advised” action Signer specifically apologized for was an August 24 Facebook post in which he publicly pointed the finger at City Manager Maurice Jones and police Chief Al Thomas for the devastating events of August 12.

Jones was called into a closed session with councilors on August 24, and the next day, a copy of a nine-page Signer-written memo demanding explanations from Jones was leaked—a breach that some suspect Signer of, but which he has adamantly denied.

Even the night before facing the jury of his peers, Signer emailed a reporter to denounce Jones for releasing “confidential closed session material in a blame game.”

Jones publicly responded August 26 to the allegations in the leaked memo, and he noted that in the middle of the violent white nationalist crisis, Signer was clamoring to get into the command center and twice threatened to fire Jones and Thomas when his entrance was denied.

The remainder of Signer’s tenure as mayor comes with conditions, which he listed in his apology, flanked by somber fellow councilors. Those include meeting with senior staff only with another councilor present, except for regular check-ins with Jones; being more mindful of the time of the council clerk; allowing fellow councilors to make announcements and comments at council meetings, and not making pronouncements as mayor without working with his colleagues—and having one present if he did so.

“My comment to two former mayors was, ‘Wow,’” says former mayor Blake Caravati. “Unfortunately it’s necessary. It’s also mortifying to me. Not so much the apology, but the four to five will-dos. That’s mortifying.”

Adds Caravati, who supported Signer in his 2015 run for council, “It seems unfortunate to me they had to put a code of conduct in writing.”

Caravati says all of the 13 mayors he knows have said the wrong thing at times. “We all do,” he says. “Unfortunately Mike did that numerous times over the past few weeks.”

Former mayor Virginia Daugherty says there was a feeling Signer had stepped out in front of council when he’s supposed to represent fellow councilors. “I think they were right to do it,” she says of the figurative spanking.

Following the August 12 Unite the Right rally, Signer called for a special session of the General Assembly to allow localities to repeal monuments, which did not come up on the council agenda. Nor did his capital-of-the-resistance rally, for which he had council clerk Paige Rice send out a notice.

On August 17, less than a week after the hate rally that resulted in the deaths of three people and dozens of others injured, Signer posted a photo of himself leaping in front of the Love statue erected in Central Place on the Downtown Mall, with the message, “After a hard week, Cville is back on our feet, and we’ll be stronger than ever. Love conquers hate! @virginiaisforlovers!”

“I was a bit disappointed in that public relations thing,” says Caravati. “It’s not all good. We’re struggling and we’ll get out of it, but it’s not all good.”

For some, like longtime resident Mary Carey, council calling Signer to the principal’s office did not go far enough. “It was a slap on the wrist,” she says. And she’s concerned about Signer’s political aspirations, and says he’s publicly said he was going to become governor and president.

“Mike Signer’s political career is over,” opined activist Jalane Schmidt while waiting for the results of the closed session.

However, Signer is not the only councilor who has eyed higher office, says Caravati, who admits he would have too, had the timing been right.

“In the short term, he’s debilitated,” Caravati says. “He can rehabilitate himself. Right now, it might be difficult, but he’s a stalwart guy.”

The councilors did not announce who called for the closed session, but it was Galvin who read the group’s response that the officials accepted Signer’s apology, and she reiterated council’s “shared responsibility for good governance.”

“That’s a hard thing to do,” observes Caravati, “to call your peers out.”

Signer’s term as mayor ends in January, and the likelihood of him being elected to another term, says Caravati, “at this time doesn’t seem probable.”

Statement of Mayor Mike Signer 083017

City Council Response to Mayor

Statement of Charlottesville City Council 083017

 

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