Mayor Nikuyah Walker was re-elected on January 6, after a short but intense discussion at a City Council meeting that left part of the new council feeling put out. Two councilors, Heather Hill (who made her own bid for mayor) and Lloyd Snook, abstained from the vote rather than cast their support for Walker.
Just watching the proceedings, you’d never know that the mayor of Charlottesville wields essentially no more formal power than any other city councilor.
That’s not a new revelation: The mayor’s role has been debated before, especially in the summer of 2018, when the aftershocks of the 2017 Unite the Right rally led to the hiring of a new city manager and a period of introspection from a government accused of lackadaisical leadership in a time of crisis. City Council chose not to pursue a change of system then, and some critics still see incongruities in the city’s way of governing.
Charlottesville currently operates under a “council-manager” or “weak mayor” system, which UVA law professor and municipal government expert Rich Schragger categorized as the most common form of government in towns and small cities across the country.
In a council-manager system, “The council is the board of directors, the mayor is the head of the board of directors, and the city manager is the CEO,” Schragger says. “Our mayor is for the most part a figurehead.”
Dave Norris, Charlottesville’s mayor from 2008-11, says that the mayor does serve an important role, but agrees that it’s mostly ceremonial. “Oftentimes it’s the mayor that people go to when they have issues,” Norris says. During his term, people would regularly stop him in the grocery store or the gym to give him their 2 cents about whatever happened to be going on in town.
Placing ceremonial authority and decision-making authority in the hands of two different people is a potential source of uncertainty, however. “The city manager makes decisions which the citizens think are being made by the mayor or the city council,” Schragger says. “It’s a kind of diffusion of authority that sometimes causes confusion.”
The city manager, the most powerful individual person in the government, isn’t elected at all. Charlottesville’s city managers have historically held the office for long terms. Prior to current city manager Tarron Richardson, who took office in 2019, Maurice Jones held the role for eight years. Before that, Gary O’Connell was manager for 15 years and Cole Hendrix was manager from 1971 to 1995.
“After having served as mayor, I really feel like the chief executive officer of the city should be directly accountable to the people of the city,” Norris says.
Nancy O’Brien, who became the city’s first female mayor in 1976, isn’t as pessimistic about the system. She feels that the weak mayor system can encourage collaboration across the government. “You need a consensus on major items,” O’Brien says. “A little more community-building is required to move forward with things. There’s a leadership opportunity…you say, ‘what do you think, can we work together to get this done.’”
O’Brien also says that it’s good to ensure that the person running the day-to-day operation of government always has the “professional management skills” of a hired city manager.
Both Norris and O’Brien agree on one big structural issue with the mayorship, however: the pay is too low.
“The time I put in, I may have made 25 cents an hour,” O’Brien says. If the mayor’s salary isn’t enough to live on, mayors have to have additional income, which closes the door for many potential candidates, says O’Brien. “It’s important that it be accessible to people of talent.”
“Even though it’s a weak mayor system, it’s still easily a 50 or 60 hour a week job if you do it right,” Norris says.
The mayor’s salary is currently $20,000 per year. The other city councilors make $18,000. The city manager is paid $205,000.
Overhauling the mayor system would mean changing the town charter, a complicated process requiring approval from the General Assembly. Better compensation for city councilors is an issue independent of the mayor system, however, and one that local legislators hope to address more directly.
Charlottesville Delegate Sally Hudson, for example, pointed to legislation she’s introduced that would remove the cap on salaries for Charlottesville City Council members without overhauling the whole system. The bill was filed just this week.
The conversation about Charlottesville’s mayor is part of a larger debate about the push and pull between state and local power in Virginia. A legal precedent called the Dillon Rule means localities here can only exercise power explicitly given to them by the General Assembly. “Cities are subject to the whims of the state legislature,” Schragger says, adding that the most obvious example is Charlottesville’s state-protected Confederate monuments.
The state government affects what the city can do in other ways, too. “Minimum wage, affordable housing, a lot of that stuff is dictated by the state,” Schragger says. “Existing gun laws don’t allow cities to regulate guns in the way they would have liked to. Charlottesville would have liked to regulate guns a long time ago.”
Although Mayor Walker’s re-election might have seemed dramatic, her next term in office will be subject to the same constraints that all of Charlottesville’s previous mayors have faced: being a largely symbolic figure in a city government that wields little power to begin with.
“Charlottesville used to think of itself as a small city or a large town,” says Norris, “but a lot of the things that we’re dealing with now are the kinds of things that some bigger cities have to grapple with.”
As Walker seeks to continue to address those issues, she won’t have many levers to pull.