Charlottesville ranks as one of the best places in the country to live, but as the year ends, the city can’t find anyone to live in the city and lead it.
In fact, the city has hired a consulting firm to run the city because it hasn’t been able to hire a city manager. A recent candidate for the interim position backed out only days before he was to take the job.
“There’s just no way that an interim person can work underneath that craziness,” the candidate, Marc Woolley, told Bloomberg Law. “My eyeballs were always going to be looking over the fence.”
Two city managers have resigned within the year. John Blair left in February, and Chip Boyles resigned in October. Boyles cited public criticism that erupted after he fired the city’s police chief, a Black woman, saying he was concerned other city leaders would leave if he did not fire her. Boyles said was surprised at the “vitriol” he received in the wake of his decision.
As for the chief, RaShall Brackney, she filed an EEOC complaint against the city, Boyles and others, asking for $3 million. Brackney alleges she was discriminated against on the basis of race and sex. She held a press conference in November, saying that “I continue to experience and be objected to humiliating acts of discrimination, continued disparate treatment, harassment and retaliation.”
Assistant Police Chief James Mooney, who was to replace Brackney temporarily, backed out.
Outgoing Mayor Nikuyah Walker, who often has said that city leaders were contributing to white supremacy, announced in September she would not run for City Council again because of Brackney’s firing as well as her relationship with the other councilors. Walker, has posted comments on social media comparing the city to a rapist, drawing criticism of her own.
The anger and continual change in leadership have made it hard for the city to function, many people have said.
“When we have this level of turnover … we can’t respond adequately to the needs of the community, we can’t adequately respond to constituent requests and we can’t adequately create and implement public policy,” councilor Michael Payne said.
As a new City Council is set to start its term and the city looks to hire a new city manager among countless other officials, Charlottesville leaders are looking for a way to restore confidence in the city. And yet there is no clear road map for doing so.
A challenge unique to Charlottesville
Walker and Boyles did not respond to requests from The Daily Progress for interviews, but some councilors and others did. Some said they see the conflicts as a clash between a city set in the past and one struggling to comes to terms with that past, race relations chief among them. Some residents are concerned that the city is not equipped to handle true reform and equity issues it needs to address, while others feel the city is moving too fast and making too many changes.
The city has lost over a dozen of its upper and mid level leaders and has gone through five city managers in the last two years alone. The aftermath of the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017 saw the departure of several city leaders. However, the recent departures have put the city in a precarious spot.
Government experts say that the level of leadership turnover the city is facing is unique.
“What’s happened in Charlottesville over the last few years is an outlier,” said Charles Hartgrove, the director of the Virginia Institute of Government at the University of Virginia. “That [type of turnover] is not typical of what we see in most Virginia localities, cities, counties or towns.”
Outgoing city councilor Heather Hill addressed this in her departing remarks at the last City Council meeting of the year.
“This small city has carried a lot on its shoulders and I believe these challenges have impacted the work that Council and staff have been able to accomplish. I acknowledge there’s been missteps, and I’ve been a part of some of those and take ownership of that. They all will weigh heavily on me. And there’s much more I was hoping that we could have made strides on before the end of this council term and that I would have had the opportunity to be a part of,” Hill said.
While the problems feel current, some people say they may be rooted in the city’s history.
“You’ve got this legacy going hundreds of years back where certain groups have been oppressed and suppressed,” said Robert Roberts, professor of political science and public administration at James Madison University.
Roberts said the issues Charlottesville officials are working through today, such as affordable housing and collective bargaining, can be traced back to Charlottesville’s history and legacy when it comes to race and class.
“You have this vast gap between the poor and the wealthy. And that has had a major impact on the history of Charlottesville,” Roberts said. He referenced the city’s former thriving Black neighborhood, Vinegar Hill, that was razed in 1964 as part of the city’s so-called urban renewal efforts.
David Toscano, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates who served on City Council from 1990 to 2002, and as mayor from 1994 to 1996, said the landscape of the city government is vastly different than when he served. There were two city managers who spanned 40 years of service prior to Toscano’s arrival, he said.
“That did bring a level of stability in how the city was run. And that’s a big difference from today,” he said. “There’s so many city managers over the last couple of years and nobody remembers their name. And that I think is having an impact.”
Hartgrove said vacancies in key city positions can affect both day-to-day and future operations of the government and have lasting ramifications.
“If there’s a leadership vacuum, continuity of operations and the long term planning is where things might suffer when you talk about implementing strategic plans,” he said. “That’s why it’s pretty critical for the next council to work diligently to try to identify how they can have some consistent leadership at the top of the organization, so they can make plans for the future. Because obviously a lot of things that governments do are capital projects, things take years and years to work towards and complete.”
And councilors say the instability and rotating door of city employees on many levels have prevented them from making the progress they’d like to in many cases.
“If you say, ‘Oh, gee, why hasn’t the city done anything?’ It’s not for lack of goodwill,” said councilor Lloyd Snook. “The people who need to be getting together aren’t there. It hasn’t been the same people from month to month. It’s been tough … I mean, you’ve got no city manager’s office, you’ve got no Public Works office. And all of these middle management people have been kind of rotating through the job.”
Spotlight on Charlottesville
Councilors said they think the national media spotlight that Charlottesville is often under in the aftermath of the Unite the Right Rally in 2017, as well as social media pressure from the public, has taken its toll on city staff and elected officials.
“Finding the right person to sit in Charlottesville is not easy. The public has a very high demand for the city manager to also be in the spotlight, and most city managers are not used to that. They’re used to the council taking that role,” Vice-Mayor Sena Magill said. “We’re under a national spotlight on a constant basis.”
Roberts agreed this could push city staff out.
“What led to this abandonment by [city leaders] is the fact that, I think, experiencing that level of hostility and tension within the community would really wear anybody down, and you don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Roberts said. “You’re constantly under the gun, constantly being attacked, constantly being criticized. And you don’t feel you have any ability to deal with issues.”
Magill said she has experienced criticism on social media that has passed the line between politics into her personal life. While Magill said she thinks political criticism is fair, attacks on her personal life and family members have taken their toll. Councilor Heather Hill expressed a similar sentiment.
Toscano said the advent of social media has put the city government in a very different position from when he was on council and the internet hadn’t taken off yet.
“I don’t totally understand the pressure that they’re under from various groups that don’t want to be respectful as they present their points of view,” Toscano said. “My golly, you turn around and you’re being insulted this way or that by people. And they intimidate folks from coming to council and speaking their mind. And we want to be able to encourage people to participate.”
Attracting and retaining city staff
Councilors said they think that the City Council could have done more in the past to attract and retain employees at all levels, as well as listening to and respecting the expertise of city staff.
“All of us on council as a body absolutely play a role in this and this is an issue that’s also existed for years,” Payne said. “Council has not clearly been successful in being able to retain and recruit city manager candidates, which then flows down to all those other positions.”
Snook said while it’s been difficult to fill the vacancies, the hiring of Deputy City Managers Sam Sanders and Ashley Marshall proves that the city is capable of attracting qualified and experienced leaders.
“There are a lot of people out there for whom the notion of coming to Charlottesville to do good things is attractive, and we just have to make sure we can tap into those people and get them to come and get them to stay,” Snook said. “And when they get here, we have to treat them better than we’ve been treating them.”
New year, new council
Newly sworn-in councilors Brian Pinkston and Juandiego Wade have been vocal about their desire to bring stability to the city government. Pinkston said he wants to see a renewed sense of professionalism between city councilors and city staff.
“There’s work to be done to shift things to be more functional, particularly at the highest levels, with the city manager. That whole relationship just needs to be stabilized, and frankly, made more professional in terms of how we do it, less drama around the edges,” he said.
Wade also expressed a desire for order, and said that starts with collaboration among councilors.
“I think that if the public applicants [to city positions] see that we have a strong, collaborative City Council that will work together, will communicate together, it will go a long way,” Wade said.
Pinkston said he believes the city is in a position to move on to another chapter.
“I think it’s important that we not let narratives sort of take root and produce bitter fruit, so to speak. Yeah, there’s been dysfunction. There is some dysfunction … but we still have some solid people in the crucial positions. And I think the institution of City Hall itself is rocking along,” Pinkston said.
In a departing address at the last City Council meeting of the year, Walker shared her hope that the new guard would continue taking strides toward equity.
“Charlottesville is a local model of the work that’s going to have to be done [in the country]. Anyone that thinks that we’re going to be able to hold hands in a circle around a campfire and kumbaya, they are not being realistic about what it’s going to take to actually ensure an equitable society exists,” Walker said. “I hope that you all are about the business of continuing that work. I hope that when there are challenges that you confront them and that you don’t just place blame on what has occurred the past four years … it is all of our duties … you have to right the wrongs.”