As the Charlottesville City Council met for its second emergency closed session this week, some community members would like former City Manager Tarron Richardson to return.
Richardson, who resigned from that post in September after 16 months, would return if asked, said Tanesha Hudson, a community organizer and one of five women who have written a petition seeking to bring him back to City Hall.
“We feel that our city has been in complete chaos since his departure,” they wrote in the petition. “It has continued to fall apart and there’s little to no hope that anyone new can mold it back together.”
Richardson could not be reached for comment Friday.
Hudson and the other women said Richardson would stabilize the city at a time when there’s a divided council and several high-level job vacancies. They’ve circulated a petition on Change.org, which had 52 signatures as of press time, and held a press conference Friday evening on the Downtown Mall to discuss it.
“Nobody’s there to fill [the vacancies],” said Gloria Beard, one of the petition’s authors. “How do you run a city if you have all these vacancies?”
On Thursday, the city confirmed that Deputy City Manager Letitia Shelton resigned, adding to the growing list of top city officials who have left since the violent Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12, 2017. Interim City Manager John Blair has led the city since October.
On Friday, councilors met for five hours in closed session to discuss the search for the next city manager, a public contract and to consult legal counsel. Earlier this week, the council said in a statement that it was pausing the search and evaluating “next steps to stabilize the organization over the next 12-24 months.”
In addition to Beard and Hudson, Katrina Turner, Abby Tanenbaum Guskind and Jojo Robertson helped to write the petition. They were later joined by Don Gathers, who also supports bringing back Richardson.
“Because we’re a city very much in chaos and a community in crisis with everything that’s going on outside the city, and we need some stability,” he said.
Richardson resigned after the City Council held numerous closed meetings to discuss his performance. He has since criticized councilors, as well as The Daily Progress’ coverage of his tenure.
At the time, he said he was resigning for personal reasons and cited ongoing stress from the pandemic and protests around the death of George Floyd.
“As I’ve told everyone, I just want to get some sleep,” he said.
As part of his severance package, Richardson received a lump-sum payment of $205,000, the equivalent of one year’s salary.
Tanenbaum Guskind said Friday that she and the other women have been trying to get answers about why he resigned.
“We all supported our mayor — each and every one of us here,” she said. “We’re not here to tear anybody apart or take anybody down. If you’re a citizen, you’re allowed to ask questions, and that’s what we’re here to do.”
Guskind added that Richardson should be given the chance to come back and talk about the concerns that led him to resign.
On Friday and in the petition, they outline several of Richardson’s actions in office such as a reorganization of city departments, filling three director vacancies, keeping the city’s AAA bond rating and not raising the real estate tax rate.
“He actually did a lot of things that he said he was going to do, so we want to know why he’s gone,” Turner said.
They also highlighted other actions he took behind the scenes to get to know and help community members, including meeting weekly with activists and handing out food at public housing sites.
“He was the first person from City Hall to come to my house,” Beard said. “He sat down and asked me what I would like to see done differently in this city, and he was very respectful. I don’t know what happened there, but I know he was a wonderful man and he was very, very experienced.”
Hudson said Richardson was ushering in the change that community members called for after the events of August 2017.
“People were uncomfortable that we were actually getting the change,” she said. “So we’ve got to ask ourselves as a community: Do we want change or do we just want to look like we want change? Are we really ready for the change that we’re begging them to give us?”
The petition’s authors said the media has portrayed Richardson unfairly and failed to tell the whole story about his tenure.
“We can prove based on FOIA requests that Dr. Richardson was hampered by city officials who didn’t respect where their authority ended and his began,” they wrote.
The Daily Progress began receiving documents from the city related to the fire department and Richardson in early 2020 and obtained a trove of emails at various points throughout the year. Many of the documents The Progress obtained originally were provided to Hudson, while some had been provided to NBC29 and others were provided first to The Progress.
The documents relating to the fire department highlight that former Fire Chief Andrew Baxter’s requests for more personnel were denied under previous city managers. However, further emails, documents and interviews emphasized a disconnect felt by the fire department in Richardson’s understanding of its structure and operations that was not present with previous leadership.
Other documents showed Richardson felt the council was meddling in operations in the early days of the pandemic, with frequent intense exchanges between Richardson and Mayor Nikuyah Walker.
Documents Hudson obtained at the end of 2020 show different instances of the council bickering among itself about Richardson’s departure. Text messages between Walker and Councilor Heather Hill largely show planning for meetings and frustrations with Richardson, particularly for calling out specific members of the media.
Hudson said Friday that the emails and other records show a council that didn’t understand its role and that some councilors planned to oust Richardson.
“The man wanted to do his job,” she said. “He did not want to be told by people who were not qualified enough to be a city manager to tell him how to be a city manager. That’s a disgrace.”
She later added, “Because on paper, and off paper, he’s the best city manager the city has seen and your white community says that, not the Black community.”