One of the keys to stabilizing a floundering city government is to hire a strong and competent chief executive. But in order to attract a high-quality city manager, you need a government that isn’t floundering.
That’s the paradox facing the Charlottesville municipal government at this moment. In September, City Manager Tarron Richardson resigned after less than a year and a half on the job. Earlier this month, the hiring firm retained to find his replacement fled the scene as well, with the firm’s principal telling the city he had “never seen a level of dysfunction as profound as what he was seeing here,” according to a January 4 Facebook post from Councilor Lloyd Snook.
“The plan to stabilize the organization and begin to rebuild was to have John Blair as the interim for a few months, begin a recruitment process to hire a city manager, and go from there,” says Councilor Michael Payne.
But the recruitment firm couldn’t handle the situation in Charlottesville. “They were very candid in saying that the amount of instability made it impossible for them to feel like they could be effective in recruiting a high-quality city manager candidate,” Payne continues.
The situation got so bad that Snook wrote, “In my opinion, we will not be able to hire a permanent City Manager until after the next election, in November, 2021, and we should not try.” (The next council will take office in January 2022. Mayor Nikuyah Walker and Councilor Heather Hill’s terms end in December, though both could run for reelection.)
In the last two weeks, City Council has held three closed meetings to discuss topics including “one or more prospective candidates for employment or appointment to the position of city manager,” and, ominously, “the performance of one or more city councilors.”
(When Richardson resigned in September, the announcement came at the end of a series of long closed meetings to discuss “the performance of the city manager.”)
In an interview on Monday afternoon, at the end of a five-hour session, Vice-Mayor Sena Magill was cagey about council’s plans. “We all recognize that there is a lot of fear, and tension, and unease throughout both the city government and the city as a whole right now,” she says. “We’re working very diligently to look at as many opportunities as we can to solve that.”
Some of the turnover in city government over the last few years can be attributed to the fallout of 2017’s Unite the Right rally—the city manager, police chief, and communications director all departed in the months following August 2017.
Magill thinks the problems go deeper than that, however. “This is something that’s been growing. This isn’t a single issue. We’re not looking at issues that started in 2017,” says the vice-mayor. “We’re looking at growing and changing, and growing and changing is difficult and painful.”
Certainly, relationships between some council members seem strained.
In his January 4 Facebook post, Snook wrote that an email from Walker suggested to him that “the Mayor was going to not fully engage on the most important decision that we have as a Council—the selection of the City Manager,” and that the firm’s decision to bow out was “directly attributable to the dysfunction on Council, starting with the Mayor and her e-mail of December 10.”
Snook and Walker did not respond to a request for comment on this story, and Hill declined to comment, but Walker did post on Facebook the day after Snook’s initial post.
“I am tired of my white colleagues placing the blame for everything that goes wrong at my feet and using their fragility to excuse their cunning behavior and the cunning behavior of some staff and community members,” Walker wrote. “The title of the piece that I need to write – Charlottesville: The Mountaintop of White Supremacy.”
“The problem with the written word is there is no tone of voice,” says Magill when asked if she agrees with Snook’s assertion the currently seated council won’t be able to find a city manager. “We automatically hear tone of voice based on our experience with a person, or what state of mind we’re in when we read something. And that leads to misunderstanding.”
Some citizens have begun circulating a petition asking the council to bring Richardson back as city manager. In October, when he resigned, Richardson told C-VILLE “I’ve done my best, I’ve made a significant number of changes, and it’s time for me to move on.”
For now, Magill says more closed session discussions are on the horizon, and that the group of elected officials will continue working together to the best of their ability.
Payne doesn’t think the solution lies in waiting for another election, as Snook suggests, though admits turning things around won’t be easy. “Council has been having very candid, honest conversations about substantial things that need to change going forward,” he says. “I do think the situation has gotten bad enough where it’s going to take some time to get city government back to where it’s been in the past.”