Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook has personally pared down the list of candidates vying for former Council Member Sena Magill’s seat from 20 to six. And while much of his short list reads like a who’s who of local government, some are crying foul over the process.
“I don’t think it’s democratic or transparent,” former Council Member Dede Smith told The Daily Progress on Thursday. “It’s bad governance, and I don’t think it’s fair.”
What’s not fair, Smith said, is that prospective applicants were initially told they’d be heard by the council and the public. Now, that opportunity is reserved for just the six Snook selected.
Snook, a lawyer, contends that Virginia’s open government law gives him the right to trim the list after contacting individual council members for their input. “I counted noses,” he told The Daily Progress in an email.
Megan Rhyne, the director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said that the practice of public officials holding one-on-one meetings violates the spirit, but not the letter, of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.
“I’ve complained about it in the past, because citizens should be much more informed about the filling of certain high-level roles in local government,” said Rhyne. “Is it a concern? Yes. But legal? Also yes.”
Snook said that time was of the essence in the selection of a replacement for Magill. State law gives the city just 45 days to appoint someone to the council. On the night of Jan. 3, when Magill unexpectedly announced her resignation, the council voted unanimously to choose a replacement councilor by the body’s Feb. 21 meeting.
“I was concerned about getting to a decision within the time allotted,” Snook said. “I had said from the beginning that we would figure out the next steps after we got the applications.”
Snook’s six picks are festival organizer Alex Bryant; architect and former Council Member Kathy Galvin; researcher and former Council Member Kristin Szakos; school board member Lisa Larson-Torres; sustainability and walkability advocate Natalie Oschrin; and former school board member and current University of Virginia administrator Leah Puryear.
The six have been invited to speak to council on Feb. 6. On that date, council has slated both a closed session for discussing “boards and commissions/personnel” and also placed a public hearing on the agenda, item No. 13, at which point the six applicants can speak to the public and be spoken about by the public.
Snook said that conducting a public hearing for all 20 applicants might have added three hours to the meeting and consumed another 10 hours in individual interviews.
“We wanted to get the list down to a manageable number before the public hearing,” Snook said.
Fourteen Charlottesville residents have already received rejection letters.
“Wow,” Snook wrote in an email to a rejected candidate. “We were overwhelmed by the response.”
Magill’s seat was opened after the councilor made an emotional announcement that family obligations would require her to step aside as of Jan. 11.
Both of the former council members who have applied, Galvin and Szakos, have vowed not to seek reelection to the seat, which carries a four-year term and goes up for election this November.
The council has consisted almost solely of Democrats for the past two decades. The only exceptions in that time were the single term of Republican Rob Schilling from July 2002 to June 2006 and the single term of independent Nikuyah Walker from 2018 to 2021.
“Charlottesville is fortunate to have so many people with such a diversity of interests and skills willing to jump in and help govern the City,” Snook wrote in an email to an also-ran.
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