Will the departure of the city’s development chief mean big changes at City Hall?

Director of Neighborhood Development Services Jim Tolbert, shown here in a 2011 photo, is leaving city staff next month to take a new position in Georgia. Photo: Chris Scott Director of Neighborhood Development Services Jim Tolbert, shown here in a 2011 photo, is leaving city staff next month to take a new position in Georgia. Photo: Chris Scott

Charlottesville’s top planning officer is leaving his post after a decade and a half on the job, and the announcement comes at a critical time for the department he’s leaving: The city is in the middle of a wave of new development, and neighborhood leaders are publicly criticizing a planning and development process they say overlooks residents’ needs.

Jim Tolbert, who joined city staff in 1999, will leave his post as Charlottesville’s director of Neighborhood Development Services (NDS) in early February to become assistant city manager of Sandy Springs, Georgia, a municipality north of Atlanta home to about 94,000.

“This has been a great place to work and I have no issues with management,” said Tolbert in an e-mail. “Just a right opportunity at the right time.”

But even as they wish him well, the leaders of the city’s neighborhood associations are collectively calling for reform of NDS, which employs more than 30 people and accounts for $3.4 million of the city’s budget. Nine neighborhood leaders penned a letter to the City Council in November criticizing the department as “out of touch” with the needs of residents, and saying that while they’re aware staff juggle many responsibilities, their “attention to neighborhood service, protection and advocacy is often inadequate.”

The letter calls for more community engagement and a new organizational arrangement that puts more emphasis on service and advocacy for neighborhoods.

“Right now, there’s a perception that [NDS] is kind of a black box that requests and concerns go into and don’t necessarily come out of in the way you’d expect,” said Fifeville Neighborhood Association President Michael Signer. While he said he’s personally had good interactions with Tolbert and his staff, he sympathizes with others who say they’ve seen a lack of give-and-take with planners. Signer thinks the department is too big, with too many disparate responsibilities. He included his own addendum in the November letter that offered a specific remedy: Split up NDS into multiple divisions, which he thinks would make it “more responsive, nimble, and accountable,” he said.

Organization at City Hall is the responsibility of City Manager Maurice Jones, who said in an e-mail that it’s “too early to discuss in detail the next steps in the search for a new director or if there will be a restructuring of NDS,” but added that he will work with Council and the public to “decide how best to move forward.”

City Councilor Kathy Galvin said Tolbert’s departure, while “a big shock” for a city in the midst of multiple development projects, could offer an opportunity for structural changes and a renewed effort to get residents involved in planning and development. There has been improvement on that front in recent years, she said, pointing to the creation of the PLACE Design Task Force, a citizens’ group that advises the city’s Planning Commission.

But “there’s got to be more of this kind of collaborative effort,” Galvin said, and she’s willing to consider a push to reorganize staff to make it happen.

“I think our neighborhoods just want to have rules of engagement, and they want a say in what happens,” she said, and finding the right successor for Tolbert will be part of that.

“We’ve got to make sure that whoever we get to replace him…can take us to the next level,” Galvin said.