New year, new council: Incoming City Council looks to build houses and trust

Incoming city council Sena Magill Incoming city council Sena Magill

On January 1, three new Charlottesville City Council members will officially begin their terms. Michael Payne, Sena Magill, and Lloyd Snook will join current councilors Heather Hill and Mayor Nikuyah Walker as Wes Bellamy, Mike Signer, and Kathy Galvin ride off into the sunset. 

Magill and Payne say their priorities continue to be the issues that they built their campaigns around—housing reform and environmental policy. 

“Something that I really want to get to work on immediately is climate change,” Payne says. “The city set a greenhouse gas emissions reduction target—carbon neutrality by 2050—but how do we create specific plans within each emission sector, and reach out to nonprofits in the community, to develop specific plans that can actually help accomplish that goal?”

“We need to look at how we are going to be incorporating protecting our environment and continuing our work in affordable housing,” Magill says. 

That’s easier said than done, of course. “Housing is a combination of federal, state, and some local. We don’t have the control over it that people think we do,” Magill says. 

Snook did not respond to resquests to be interviewed for this article.

Incumbent councilor Hill emphasizes that the first challenge facing council is getting everyone on the same page.

“I’m looking at some very foundational things that need to happen for both this council and this administration to be successful,” Hill says. “Alignment among our council is just so critical to any path forward on any other priorities that any of us individually want to pursue.”

“I think that right now, the way we’ve historically operated, nothing gets done,” Hill says. “Truly, some things are never getting done, and a lot of money and resources are being spent on them.”

Hill’s comments come on the heels of a council session that strained interpersonal relations between members. Those disagreements were put on display at a team-building retreat in December 2018, when The Daily Progress reported that the councilors “aired their grievances with each other, the media and the community members who address them at meetings.”

“No one has to be friends with each other, but we have to be committed to working with each other and hearing each others’ perspectives,” Hill says.

Magill says that all her fellow council members are “in it for the same reason.” 

“There is no thought that anyone is using this as a stepping stone to something else. We’re all in this because we live in this community and want to do right by this community,” she says.

The stakes are high. Payne points out that mistrust between councilors exacerbates long-standing issues of trust between city residents and local government. “If we’re consumed by infighting, that only makes it harder for us to take action on affordable housing, climate change, all these issues,” Payne says. 

For Magill, rebuilding the city’s trust in government comes down to openness and honesty. “Try not to make promises you can’t keep. Try to be clear and open with your abilities and what you can and cannot do,” she says.

One of the first tasks council members will face will be electing a mayor and vice-mayor. Walker (who did not respond to a request for comment) has just completed her first two-year term as mayor, but is eligible for another. Before her, Mike Signer served one term, but the three mayors before him each served two. The council members declined to speculate on the 2020 selection process. 

“It’s historically been a pretty opaque process, a lot of behind-the-scenes discussions and negotiations and jockeying,” says former mayor Dave Norris, though Walker’s election two years ago was a notable exception. Of the new councilors, Magill received the most votes in the general election. 

“I think that’s going to be very telling, who the new mayor is,” Norris says. Norris describes Payne and Walker as being “of the progressive, change kind of camp,” and  Hill and Snook as “a little bit more moderate.” 

“And then you have one Sena Magill,” he adds. “It’ll be interesting to see what kind of councilor she’s going to be. The vote on the mayor will be one sign of that.”

The beginning of the new session means that all five councilors who were on the board during the summer of 2017 will have concluded their time on council. 

“We lose a lot of the experience of those councilors, who did sit on the dais during a very difficult time in our community, and I hope they continue to be resources to all of us,” Hill says of the outgoing group. 

The fresh faces in government might help the city move forward, however. “Hopefully, without the baggage, it’s easier to trust that the decisions we’re making are in what we feel is the best interest of the community,” Magill says.

“I don’t think it’s a turning point that changes everything,” Payne says. “It’s important that we don’t fall into a mindset of, ‘Let’s go back to how things were five years ago’…There’s a lot of work to be done. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.”

 

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