Charlottesville has temporarily suspended its search for a city manager to evaluate “next steps to stabilize the organization,” the City Council said in a statement Monday.
Last month, the city signed a $42,500 contract with Ralph Andersen & Associates of Rocklin, California, to find a successor to former City Manager Tarron Richardson.
Richardson’s tenure ended Sept. 30 after he and the council mutually agreed to part ways. He received a lump-sum severance payout of $205,000, equivalent to one year’s salary, and will have city health insurance for another year, unless he finds another job in that time.
In response to inquiries Monday, the council issued a statement saying it has “decided to pause working with a search firm” and is evaluating “next steps to stabilize the organization over the next 12-24 months.” The council plans to provide additional public information prior to its Jan. 19 meeting.
At least one high-ranking official has criticized the search firm’s early moves, according to emails provided by the city to activist Tanesha Hudson. Those emails were obtained through a request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
In a Dec. 4 email, Police Chief RaShall Brackney said her interview with one of the consultants was an “unsettling and unprofessional interaction” and she pledged moving forward to “not interact with this consultant.”
Brackney claims the consultant said the events around the 2017 Unite the Right rally have no bearing on the city. In her email, Brackney said she told the consultant any candidate must understand the role of 2017 in current events. She said the consultant “failed to comprehend and lacked a complete understanding of the lingering effects and trauma present in our organization and the community.”
Brackney wrote that the consultant focused on the money the city was paying, finding candidates in other localities who have since been fired or resigned and the need to “pay the next City Manager a great deal of money and a large severance package.”
Brackney claimed the consultant later started to yell and she left the virtual meeting. She said “this consultant is likely to do more damage to the City of Charlottesville, staff, and the potential candidates he presents for consideration.”
Efforts to seek comment from the search firm were unsuccessful Monday.
Brackney’s interview with the consultant occurred with Utilities Director Lauren Hildebrand and Charlottesville Area Transit Director Garland Williams. The council followed up with those two for their impressions on the call, but declined to comment on whether they corroborated Brackney’s claims.
The emails provided to Hudson include a draft of the brochure the consultant would use for its search. Under “Political Climate,” the draft says 2017 “rang a bell that is still ringing.” It mentions ongoing civil lawsuits, dramatic changes in city leadership and increased community activism.
“The August events, together with the emergence of Black Lives Matter and other progressive movements, have led to dramatically increased civic activism. … Our citizens do not hesitate to speak up, and they expect to be listened to. Our next City Manager will need to welcome that passion as a positive, not see it as a negative,” the draft brochure says.
City Attorney John Blair has been serving as interim city manager since Oct. 1, with Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson filling the role of acting city attorney.
Richardson’s departure continued a tumultuous time for city leadership since the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally.
Blair is the fourth person to lead the city since Jan. 1, 2018. Maurice Jones’ contract was not renewed in the fallout of the Unite the Right rally and he was succeeded by Mike Murphy in an interim role. Murphy held the position until Richardson took over in May 2019.
Richardson, Murphy and Jones received benefits when leaving the city.
Murphy remained on the city’s payroll through Oct. 31. Jones had paid back $32,000 of a $113,000 loan to move to the city and obtain a master’s degree and the city forgave the balance in 2018 after his departure.
Prior to Jones’ departure, Charlottesville only had four city managers over 70 years: Jones, Gary O’Connell, Cole Hendrix and James Bowen.