'Sikh guy' brings experience to mayor's job

Moments after his City Council peers chose him to serve as Charlottesville’s next mayor, Satyendra Huja departed briefly from his pragmatic tone to reflect on the larger significance of the occasion.

Nearing his fourth decade in Charlottesville, Satyendra Huja will try to put years of service as an elected official and planner to the task of setting the agenda for a new council that remains split on some development issues. (Photo by Sarah Cramer)

“This says a great deal about our community, someone like me becoming mayor. Our community appreciates and embraces diversity and that reflects in our efforts,” Huja said.
It wasn’t the “I have a dream” speech, to be sure, but for Huja it was borderline emotive, and he expanded on his comments during an interview later in the week.

“I can’t think of a Sikh guy getting elected in many other communities,” Huja said. “There aren’t many Sikhs in Charlottesville… So I obviously didn’t get elected because of my religion. I got elected because I could be of service.”

Huja, 70, was born in a part of northern India that is now Pakistan, and immigrated to the U.S. to pursue his education with a mandate from his father to serve the community wherever he landed. After receiving a master’s degree in city planning from Michigan State, he served as the city’s director of planning and community development for three decades. Government has been his career and calling since.

“When I first came to the United States, I never thought of staying, but as it turned out it offered me the opportunity to practice what I had learned and to make a difference in some ways,” Huja said.

That commitment to service is what spurred fellow council member Kristin Szakos to nominate Huja for mayor.

“He did an incredible amount of knocking on doors and making phone calls. He talked to people one on one about what they were interested in and what they cared about and I think he’s committed to continuing that,” Szakos said. “He said in the meeting last night something I don’t know that anyone’s ever said, ‘I’m available 24/7,’ and I can imagine someone calling him on the phone at 3am saying they have a pothole and I think he’d probably answer.”

Before the new council was seated on Tuesday, January 3, there had been some speculation that Szakos wanted the job for herself. However, she said she would rather focus her extra energy on her family and a grant-funded partnership she helped to organize aimed at improving school retention in three neighborhoods in the West Main Street corridor.
“I’ve certainly looked at the mayorship and I think I could do a good job at it, but for me the timing wasn’t right and I think for him it was,” Szakos said.

Two-term mayor Dave Norris said he voted for Huja because of his long track record and his ability to build consensus in the community.

“He’s been in town for almost 40 years now, he knows a lot of people and has a lot of connections and that will serve him well,” said Norris. “A lot of the job of mayor isn’t trying to do things on your own but trying to figure out who you can bring together to get things done.”

Charlottesville’s mayor is essentially a facilitator with no executive power other than to set the City Council’s agenda and run its meetings. New council member Kathy Galvin said she was impressed by Huja’s willingness to instigate open discussion and elicit the opinions of his colleagues.

“I look at the mayor as the chairman of the board, making sure that the agenda is clear and that the agenda reflects everyone’s interests and that all opinions are heard, and that is what I believe Mr. Huja will bring to the table,” Galvin said.

During his first meeting, Huja moved the agenda swiftly without rushing speakers. Though he didn’t use the two small hourglasses in front of them, he kept members of the public to their three minutes of time during the open comment period and urged fellow council members to stay on topics detailed on the meeting agenda, which included a review of the new steep slopes ordinance and a discussion of the coming city/county cost share agreement.

New councilor Dede Smith has been, along with Norris, a vehement opponent of the recently adopted community water supply plan that will expand the Ragged Mountain Dam. She used the informational discussion to ask about the cost implications of the water supply plan in the cost share agreement.

Norris said he and Smith’s position on the water supply plan and the Meadow Creek Parkway was evidence of two mindsets on the new council.

“There’s a group in town that’s more populist. That’s concerned about environmental issues, the health of our ecology, that’s more inclined to support social justice,” Norris said. “And then there’s another sort of orientation that’s more inclined to support the need for infrastructure to support growth and development and maybe not as populist in its orientation.”

But he added the group would likely agree on many decisions.

“You’re not going to see Dede and me against Huja, Kathy and Kristin on every issue. There’s a lot of issues on which we’ll have broad agreement. But certainly on the water issue and on some other issues, there will be disagreement on council and that’s fine,” Norris said.
Huja also downplayed the divide.

“I think there’s one or two issues on which we disagree, for example the water supply and the Meadow Creek Parkway, but I think most times we’ll agree and we’ll work together as a team—all five of us,” Huja said. “I think we’ll agree more than we disagree.” 

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