The city of Charlottesville is coming off a tumultuous year of leadership transitions and departures and city leaders pondered questions of recovering and how to get back on track during an all-day retreat Wednesday.
“Some things to just really keep in mind as you all move forward is really thinking about your priorities and your goals,” Deputy City Manager Ashley Marshall to the city council and officials. “The reason why these are so important is because, if those clear expectations are not conveyed to your executives, they’re going to really flounder because they’re going to be guessing at what you need or missing the mark completely.”
In the past few years, the council has had issues working with several city managers and a substantial part of the retreat was spent explaining the relationship between the city manager and the council.
Charlottesville has a city manager form of government wherein the day-to-day operations are managed and decisions made by the manager hired by the council. The city’s weak mayor system of government is designed to thwart nepotism and patronage systems that often grow in strong-mayor communities.
“The city manager has experience and education, expertise in certain topics. They’re not there ever to tell you what exactly to do but they are there to provide you with background guidance, research that you all may need to make some decisions,” Marshall said.
Robert Bobb of the Robert Bobb Group, LLC, the firm the city hired to perform interim city manager duties, said the relationship between the city manager and City Council cannot be a one-time discussion. He said a continuous dialogue promotes confidence and trust.
Bobb also emphasized that the city manager must remain apolitical, even if under intense political pressure.
“We’re going to have a hard discussion with whoever it is that you’re going to employ to be your next city manager to make sure they understand the political environment in which he or she works in, but they are to be apolitical,” Bobb said.
“Your city manager is Switzerland,” Marshall said. “They’re there to listen, to advise and to manage.”
Deputy City Manager Sam Sanders presented the hot topics the city may face in the next year, including the budget, the council-manager relationship and organizational assessment.
“We narrowed those down to three, knowing very easily that there are probably 65 hot topic items that need to be discussed right now in the city of Charlottesville, being perfectly honest,” Sanders said.
Officials also discussed ways to shorten meetings by limiting comments. City Vice-Mayor Juandiego Wade said council meetings frequently run past midnight.
“We want to make running for council more doable for anyone and right now if you have a job and you have a family, having meetings that go to 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. is just not feasible and it’s just not fair,” Wade said.
Councilor Brian Pinkston agreed.
“Most of the public is not able to be watching events on Zoom, let alone being down at City Hall between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m.,” Pinkston said. “I don’t think it’s fair to many of our citizens.”
Councilors also noted that city staff, consultants and experts attending to give presentations sometimes wait hours for their agenda item to come up, often well after 11 p.m.. Council procedures state that the goal is end meetings by 11 p.m.
Regular City Council meetings start at 6:30 p.m., with closed sessions and work sessions typically starting at 4 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. prior to the regular meeting.
Councilors debated the best way to shorten meetings, from limiting public comment to putting a time limit on councilors’ statements.
In the end, they voted to change meeting procedures so that people who speak during the first public comment session cannot speak in the last public comment segment of the meeting. If a member of the public did not speak earlier during the meeting, they will be allowed to speak during the last session.
This was the only public comment period City Council could limit, according to city code. City attorney Lisa Robertson said that City Council could not eliminate public comment on the consent agenda, though Snook proposed doing so.
Councilor Sena Magill was strongly opposed to limiting public comment and cited a part of city code that encourages councilors to limit time spent giving their remarks.
Council policies and procedures recommend councilors state the basis of any motion in less than five minutes with three minutes of debate per councilor on the motion. In asking a question of a speaker, council members should take less than three minutes but that hasn’t always been happening.
Magill suggested displaying the same three-minute time clock that is displayed for public comment to help councilors stay on track.
“We should also be looking to ourselves and how we can make sure we’re employing parsimony in our own questions,” Magill said.
Councilors decided that, in the future, they would take a vote on whether to continue the meeting if it looked like it would go past 11 p.m. and reassess how many items can go on one meeting agenda.
Announcements and proclamations, they suggested, could be moved to work sessions.