In Chip Boyles’ first four months as Charlottesville’s city manager, he’s faced a number of high-profile challenges, “from a pandemic to statues,” as he put it.
But he credits a positive working relationship with city councilors and staff as what has helped him manage these issues.
“It’s been a very positive experience. And that’s with a lot of challenges,” he said.
Boyles’ appointment was announced in January after then-City Attorney John Blair, who was serving as interim city manager, took a job in Staunton. Boyles’ first day was Feb. 15. He was selected in closed City Council sessions that were held to quickly find a replacement for Blair.
Boyles had been executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission since 2014. The commission serves Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson.
“[The planning district] board is made up of elected officials from our region, so I’ve worked with many of the City Council members, including Mayor [Nikuyah] Walker, in the past. And so through a series of conversations, I agreed to take this position with the city,” Boyles said.
Boyles’ appointment may be temporary. When the newly elected City Council is seated in January, it can decide whether it would like to keep Boyles on or do a new public search for a city manager.
“It was really important because of the number of open positions that [the city] needed somebody in very quickly,” Boyles said. “It would have been very difficult to go out and search for somebody, whether temporary or permanent, just because of the number of leadership positions that were now open.”
Boyles has a degree in political science from the University of South Carolina and a degree in public administration from Clemson University. He previously worked as a city and town manager in Maryland and South Carolina and was the urban development director in the mayor’s office of the city/parish of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
As for his current position, Boyles said: “My day focuses around working with three real stakeholder groups, which is the mayor and council, of course, the department heads and the leadership team at the city, with all of the departments, as well as a number of the other elected officials like the sheriff and treasurer and assessor, and then, of course, the citizens.”
Boyles said his day-to-day activities as city manager include signing contracts, making personnel decisions, helping give direction to city department heads and following the policies set by the mayor and the City Council.
“We don’t do the policy, we just implement it, and we try to push the city in the direction of the vision and the goals and strategies that the mayor and City Council have identified for the city,” he said.Boyles said the city staff’s duties often include helping citizens solve problems and get the services they need, including tasks such as organizing snow removal or getting potholes filled.
“When something has gone astray, we try to get it corrected,” he said.
Boyles said he has a “very good” working relationship with the city councilors.
“During the discussions with the mayor and council, they really made me feel much more comfortable that they were going to do everything that they possibly could to bring stability to the local government,” he said. “They made it very clear that my No. 1 priority was to help rebuild the staff and bring some trust and stability to the local government. Council has lived up to its word of doing just that.”
Boyles said the biggest challenge he faced starting the position during the COVID-19 pandemic was working through how to do city business primarily through virtual platforms and not being able to meet with people in person. He said it was also challenging making sure residents got services while keeping both residents and staff members safe.
“Our police, our firefighters, our EMS personnel, our road crews — they can’t do their work from home, so they have to be out and trying to make sure that we’re performing the services but keeping everybody as safe as possible,” he said. “And, you know, luckily, if you look at the COVID numbers by our area, it looks like everybody as a team did a pretty good job of it.”
Even though the council recently voted to remove the city’s two Confederate statues, Boyles said it could potentially take a while for the statues to physically come down. Currently, the city is in a 30-day waiting period required by state statute to receive statements of interest in the statues from entities such as museums and battlefields.
“We will have to procure services for a contractor to remove those, and I don’t know how long that will take,” he said.
Boyles said a lot will depend on whether the City Council decides to demolish the statues entirely or if they are relocated elsewhere. Different services and contractors would be needed for these options.
“There are caveats … if they’re being removed to be demolished in some way, then it would be a lot cheaper than to remove them in a pristine manner and it’s a lot cheaper to remove than if you’re trying to preserve every aspect of it,” he said.
Boyles talked about his experience starting the position shortly before the fiscal year 2022 budget was voted on.
“It never stops. I mean you’re constantly working on your current budget, or the next budget. So it’s a never-ending process. How I deal with it is just trying to be as transparent as possible and try to help people to understand, because it is a very complicated issue,” he said.Boyles said that he and his staff are working to create a web page for the next budget season that would allow community members to view details of the budget in a more accessible and understandable way.
“I know a lot of people commented this past budget season that the police department budget wasn’t transparent enough, when in fact we had provided many details of the police budget, but sometimes it’s hard to find or it’s hard to understand,” Boyles said. “We have to do a better job of helping people to be able to find the information and then know what it is that they’re reading, so that they can provide input to the elected officials who ultimately make the decisions.”
Boyles said city staff is working closely on updating the city’s strategic plan.“That’s really the beginning of the budget, it’s getting the vision and direction from the mayor and council, who gets it from the public. [It says], where are we, where should we be going, what are we trying to achieve and where should we be putting the majority of our resources. It’s then up to myself and the department heads to put together a budget that supports that direction,” he said.
Boyles said that, for example, if the public voiced strong support for funding of mental health emergency response services as an alternative to police response to mental health crises, that’s something that could be outlined in the strategic plan and later in the budget.
Boyles said it’s been important to him to find the right people to fill the many open positions in City Hall.
“It’s most important to me to have the right people on the bus and to build a culture here that is very transparent, has a diversity of backgrounds, experience, education,” he said. “Clearly, they have to be very qualified, but people have to be able to work together, they have to be able to work with the council and they have to especially be able to work with and understand the community.”
“And so it’s most important to me to have those right people all together and building one very cohesive team. And that’s what we’ve been trying to do, and so far I think we’ve been very, very lucky and being able to do that with the new leadership that we were putting in place,” Boyles said.
Boyles said that in his time as city manager so far, he is proudest of the team he has built.
“It’s a very solid team, very qualified … I think that we are building a very, very strong team for the future,” he said.
One of his biggest goals is to get the community more engaged with the city government.
“I want us to be seen more as a partner in the community than as just a regulatory agency. I think that it’s been really tough for us here because we’ve been trying to put out so many fires for so long. We don’t spend enough time being entrepreneurs in the services we provide, and we aren’t able to really think as proactively as we should,” Boyles said.
“I wish people could see the balance that we have to try to achieve,” he said. “City officials have to balance everybody’s initiatives. And that’s not easy to do because some people want snow off of the street, it’s the most important thing for them. For others, it’s most important to have the snow out of the bike lane. For others, it’s more important to have it off of the sidewalk. And so it’s really difficult to be able to make everybody happy.”
“The city does its best to meet the biggest needs, but it’s really difficult to get people to understand that balance.”