Charlottesville City Council was in the hot seat Monday over the conduct of Police Chief RaShall Brackney and ongoing leadership turnover at City Hall.
During public comment, several speakers denounced the chief’s actions at her recent press conference where she refuted claims of racial profiling made by leaders of the Unitarian Universalists of Charlottesville Church following an October incident.
In the press conference, Brackney called on the church’s leadership to apologize or be terminated.
The church had published a letter addressed to Brackney saying a congregant was surrounded by police while walking to church on Oct. 7 after the city police received a call from a University of Virginia student.
According to the letter, the congregant was told by city police that he matched the description of a suspect in a series of break-ins, though the letter contends that the suspect looked nothing like the church member, other than that both men are Black.
Brackney refuted the claims and accused the church of “race baiting.” Officers were cleared of any wrongdoing through an internal affairs investigation.
Among the councilors, only Mayor Nikuyah Walker, who was absent from Monday’s meeting, has publicly addressed Brackney’s actions. The Police Civilian Review Board discussed the matter during its meeting last week.
In a Facebook post last week, Walker wrote generally about racial undertones to the initial call leading to the police interaction. She then posted a series of questions saying Brackney was being “morally crucified” and implying the community was holding Brackney to a different standard than it did for Tim Longo, the city’s last white police chief. He was succeeded by Al Thomas, who retired in the fallout of the Unite the Right rally.
At Monday’s meeting, speaker Brian Campbell said he was “shocked” to see Brackney’s press conference, calling it “wildly inappropriate at the very least.” He asked the council to discipline Brackney.
Activist Katrina Turner called it “one of the most disturbing press conferences I’ve seen.”
“She has been allowed to lie, and I’m not going to say ‘make mistakes,’ she has been allowed to lie on so many community members, and we have asked for apologies and no one has made her step up and do what she’s supposed to do,” Turner said.
Turner asked for some action to remove both Brackney and Walker from their posts.
Speaker Abby Guskind was “absolutely disgusted” at the press conference. She also criticized a “toxic environment” in City Hall and referred to Walker’s campaign slogan of “Unmasking the Illusion,” saying that promise hadn’t been met.
“There’s just so much garbage thrown in the trash pile and it’s just getting bigger and bigger and nobody seems to want to tackle the problems with the city,” she said. “The toxicity that’s behind closed doors has to stop.”
Guskind said she was “enraged” that former City Manager Tarron Richardson was no longer with the city. Richardson’s tenure ended on Sept. 30 after he and the City 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.
Guskind and activists Tanesha Hudson and Don Gathers said the council should ask Richardson to return to his job.
Hudson, who has frequently criticized the council’s actions involving Richardson, implied that the panel had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Richardson around his departure. Councilor Lloyd Snook, who was the only person to address the public comments, said the council signed no such agreement.
Utility bill relief
In other business, the council conducted a first reading of allocating $182,801 in relief funding for municipal utility customers.
The money comes from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Funds are available to city water, wastewater and natural gas customers.
Interim City Manager John Blair said the program will provide an “important financial stopgap” to residents.
Customers are eligible for relief if their accounts have an unpaid balance that is at least a month old and accrued between March 1 and Dec. 30.
The city is planning to reach out to customers whose accounts meet the past-due requirements by mail or automatic calls. If customers are not contacted, their account is not eligible.
Customers must complete an intake form to certify that their inability to make payments was caused by the pandemic. Customers must not have received prior relief funding to pay their utility bills.
All intake forms must be submitted by Jan. 8.
Those receiving communication regarding the program are asked to visit charlottesville.gov/utilityrelief or call (434) 970-3211.
Also Monday, the council voted to put about $3.9 million in leftover funds from the budget for fiscal 2020, which ended June 30, toward a contingency fund of the Capital Improvement Program.
The city has a policy of holding 17% of its revenues in a fund balance, and the $3.9 million is money beyond that policy.
The city is operating on a $191.2 million budget for fiscal 2021, which started July 1. The spending plan is largely in line with the fiscal 2020 budget as officials had to cut back on plans because of the pandemic.
The budget includes the first year of the city’s five-year CIP, which sits at about $124.1 million. It includes $25.8 million for the current fiscal year, which was significantly reduced because of the pandemic.
The council would still have to approve any later expenditure of the CIP contingency reserve. If the city needs the money for operating expenses, the council would be able to take that action at a later date.
The council also conducted a first reading of spending $3.5 million to hire 15 firefighters through the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant program.
Also on the consent agenda was a $246,946 reallocation of excess funds from a road project in the Hillcrest/Birdwood neighborhood to projects at Washington Park/Madison Avenue and the intersection of Monticello Avenue and Second Street.