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City Council, Richardson sparred over response in early days of pandemic

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, at least two Charlottesville City Councilors felt they weren’t getting effective communication from City Manager Tarron Richardson, while the city’s top administrator accused council of “meddling” in operations.

The Daily Progress received emails between the council and Richardson related to the virus from between March 1 and March 24 through a request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

The emails show several plans to direct messaging, manage safety and take steps quicker than the state to keep the virus from spreading locally. Several messages show bickering between the council and the city’s top administrator as the virus worsened, with Richardson concerned that the council was questioning his decisions and “bullying” him into actions.

Among City Council, the first signs of tension emerged on March 15, three days after Richardson declared a local emergency and the day before the first confirmed case in the Charlottesville area was reported.

Councilor Heather Hill emailed Richardson to say that although he had said he was regularly communicating with senior staff members, she had heard that that was not the case and said the council had not received much communication since March 12.

“This is a unique and critical time in our organization and the community at large. Strong leadership is paramount,” she wrote, adding a directive to provide the council with a full update on staffing decisions by the next day.

Richardson wrote back that officials had been holding multiple meetings and sending out press releases.

“Please allow me to do my job for once instead of meddling in my day-to-day operations. I have asked for you to stop this in the past,” he wrote. “This [is] causing confusion. I should not hear from staff that you are communicating with them about planning without my knowledge.”

Hill acknowledged that there had been meetings with the council, but wrote they had not heard anything from Richardson in several days. She wrote that there is a “leadership vacuum” and felt it was her duty to communicate that to him “as frustrations are growing among staff.”

Mayor Nikuyah Walker then weighed in that she feels Richardson isn’t aligned with the council.

“We do not work for you, you work for us. And we all work for our citizens. If we ask you to consider a different path, that shouldn’t be viewed as ‘creating confusion’ or ‘meddling’ in day-to-day operations,” she wrote. “This is not a time to be bickering. I hope that we’re able to move forward and work through this public health crisis together. A lot of the frustration that is brewing is associated with fear and lack of communication. We will need to be supportive of each other during this critical time.”

Walker forwarded the email chain to Deputy City Manager Letitia Shelton and wrote that she was “concerned about whether or not effective communication is occurring and if we’re prepared for this pandemic.”

The situation escalated the next day when Richardson informed the council about a forthcoming joint press release between the city, Albemarle County and the University of Virginia that encouraged residents to take precautions and follow health department guidelines.

Walker asked that press releases be sent to the council for review before being sent to staff and the public.

Richardson asked for more clarity and said, “I want to remind you that they are not policies that need City Council approval.”

After receiving an answer, Richardson thanked her and added, “I will continue to provide Council with ongoing updates as necessary, which I have done throughout my tenure here with the City.”

Walker countered that she wasn’t attempting to micromanage, “but I’ve consistently informed you that you are not operating with a team spirit.”

“If we ask you to be as employee-centered as possible, that doesn’t mean that you would create policies that treat every employee as if they’re wasteful and disposable. Your ‘I’ve done this in the past and know exactly what the answers are’ is dangerous,” she wrote.

Walker went on to write that she “will not allow you or anyone else to put their ego above the needs of the community.”

“I’ve been attempting to support your administration no matter how many negative comments rumored that you’ve stated about me,” she wrote. “I’ve told you how I’ve felt to your face and have and will continue to challenge you whether you’re open to it or not.”

Utility services

Another argument was sparked by the city’s decision not to disconnect utility services for nonpayment during the local declaration of emergency.

Walker wrote to the council on March 19 that she had asked Richardson to reconnect services to houses that were disconnected before the declaration and he said he’d “think about it.”

“I don’t feel that this is something that should require a lot of thought. … This should not require a ton of contemplation,” she wrote. “How are people supposed to do the basic hand washing for 20 seconds and cleaning physical spaces, if they don’t have water or gas to heat it?”

Richardson said that when he talked to Walker, she “demanded that I reconsider” the decision about disconnected accounts and he said that he’d meet with staff in the morning.

She then sent the email saying he had made the decision to not reconnect accounts that were cut off before the local emergency declarations.

“That is completely false!” Richardson wrote, which Walker later disputed.

Richardson later provided a full update to the council that said “Few, if any households” were without services because of nonpayment. He said that the last time an account was suspended was March 9 and that that account had been reconnected.

Richardson emphasized that he is thinking about the financial impact of quick decisions in an emergency.

“Now, more than ever, it is of paramount importance that we take the necessary time to think through these matters due to this emergency and the financial impact that it may have on our budget if it lasts over a significant period of time,” he wrote.

Richardson then wrote and said he wanted a meeting with the entire council about his “responsibilities as city manager and vice versa.”

“This is getting out-of-control and I will not keep going back-and-forth about my decisions that pertain to City operations every day and night,” he wrote. “This has got to stop! I am not going to keep dealing with this when the Charter clearly states my responsibilities as City Manager.”

It appears no such meeting has occurred since the email was sent on March 19; the full council has since met only on March 25.

Walker said that Richardson’s financial decisions are having a huge impact on lives.

“If all your decisions are based on a ‘bottom line’ and you can’t see the impact in live[s], it’s problematic for me. … Your way isn’t the only way and your way may not be the way. You’re inflexible,” she wrote. “I’m not confident in your decision-making if you need 2 days to understand the importance of running water.”

At that point, Councilor Michael Payne attempted to ease tensions.

“I hope we can all acknowledge the difficulty of trying to navigate a crisis without precedent — everyone is doing the best they can and there are no easy decisions,” he wrote.

Employee support

On the same day, March 19, Hill sent an email to Richardson, council, Police Chief RaShall Brackney, Fire Chief Andrew Baxter and Deputy Fire Chief Emily Pelliccia asking for Richardson’s thoughts on providing meals for essentials staff.

Richardson again fired back that he had already informed his crisis team that there’s no need to provide meals at this moment because most employees bring lunch or have them delivered. He called Hill’s email an attempt for staff to workaround his decisions.

“I am requesting from this point forward that any communication that revolve[s] around city operations is forwarded to me or my deputies and not multiple people outside of City Council,” he wrote. “As mentioned previously, this ongoing interference with our plans is continuing to cause mass confusion amongst my leadership team and city employees. This is a continuous workaround that employees do when they receive a “No” answer from me or my deputies. Your email is clearly an indication of just that and it continues to happen.”

The city announced in mid-March that all non-essential employees would work from home for two weeks and would revisit the decision in two weeks on March 31. On March 24, ahead of that announcement, Hill asked Richardson for information on the staffing plan and how he would make an announcement.

“Your email signifies that you would once again like to scrutinize and dictate another one of my decisions that relate to City operations by gaining support from other Council members through email,” Richardson wrote back.

“In the future, I am once again asking for you to speak with me directly about my plans instead of always trying to bully me into making a decision about our workforce and operations,” he wrote. “Heather, I did not sign-up for this constant harassment and would like for it to stop!”

Walker weighed in that the council’s job is to set policy and Richardson doesn’t seem to support that.

“In order for this relationship to work, we have to trust that you will implement policies according to the direction that the majority of Council has agreed to,” she wrote. “Why do you perceive direction from the 5 people (or at least 2 of us) who are your bosses as bullying and harassment?”

Hill declined comment for this story and Walker and Councilor Lloyd Snook did not return a request for comment.

Councilor Sena Magill said in an emailed statement that it’s “hard to always remain calm” during stressful times.

“People do not always have the same vision or ideas on how best to get somewhere. During these disagreements sometimes tones can be short,” she said. “I feel that council and the city manager are working together for the safety of our city both short and long term. At times this may be tense due to the extreme pressures we are all facing and the desire to do the best for the people we serve. However I feel that the different views and even disagreements bring about creative solutions to help our city through this time.”

Richardson said that the council’s “heart is in the right place.”

“I appreciate their feedback and commitment to serving this community,” he said. “We will continue to work as a team to get through this pandemic, to finalize the budget, and to achieve our goals as an organization.”

Payne said that the pandemic is “a crisis without precedent within our lifetimes.”

“It can occasionally be tense for city leadership who are working around the clock to address the public health and economic crises the pandemic has created while also maintaining the City’s day-to-day operations,” he said. “At the end of the day, this isn’t about us: it’s about serving and protecting the people in our community during this crisis.”

Councilors’ exposure

The council and Richardson weren’t the only ones to exchange fiery emails over the response to the virus.

The emails also show that Walker was angry with City Councilor Lloyd Snook for not self-isolating after returning from the National League of Cities Conference in which attendees had tested positive for the virus.

Snook and Magill had attended the conference together; when Magill began exhibiting symptoms, she self-isolated as she awaited a test result, which eventually returned negative.

Walker contacted Snook after he told The Daily Progress that he didn’t feel a need to isolate himself. Walker said she was concerned because he had attended council’s March 16 meeting and “you were coughing quite a bit.”

Walker said Snook wasn’t setting a good example for the public and if he wasn’t taking the threat seriously that he should “keep your asinine comments to yourself.”

Snook sent a short response on March 23 and noted that he’s had a “frog in my throat” since Christmas. He then sent a longer email on March 24 “simply so that your comments don’t go unchallenged,” and noted CDC guidelines at the time did not recommend special measures for people who had been exposed to asymptomatic people.

“I don’t have time to debate you for the sake of the art of debate,” Walker responded. “The bottom line is that regardless of how superb you felt, you could have been exposed and you could have been a carrier and you could have infected someone else.”

As of Thursday, the next scheduled City Council meeting is on April 20.


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