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Council opens Strategic Plan meetings with broad talk of goals, strengths and weaknesses

Charlottesville City Council spent most of its six-hour work session Tuesday to kick of its Strategic Plan process discussing strengths, weaknesses and overall goals.

The plan is a high-level document outlining the council’s vision and goals over a three-year period. It is mostly abstract, with the 2018-2020 document including goals of an inclusive, self-sufficient community; healthy and safe city; beautiful environment; strong, diversified economy and a responsive organization.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker called the plan a “blueprint for the city” and said it should be realistic and not “overly ambitious.” She said the city also needs a system to measure achievement toward the plan’s milestones.

The work session was led by Selena Cozart, a facilitator with the University of Virginia. The council conducted several exercises to focus its goals and determine the resources available to the city to achieve them.

City Attorney John Blair said the city needs to emphasize collaboration with UVa, nonprofits and the private sector. Blair will take over as interim city manager on Thursday. City Manager Tarron Richardson, whose last day is Wednesday, was not part of the meeting.

“It’s great to have a thoughtful document but we need a document to convey not only to our staff, not only to council, not only to our next city manager, but to our residents that this is the roadmap to our community,” Blair said.

Deputy City Manager Paul Oberdorfer said the plan and measuring its success should have some sort of connection to the budget.

“If we can’t meet the goal and we have the resources, [we need to] be able to diagnose why that didn’t happen and be able to determine if it’s a problem with our process or workflows or if it’s a problem of being understaffed,” he said.

In rethinking the Strategic Plan, Councilor Sena Magill said the goals should be more smoothly melded into the plan. For example, she said, COVID-19 has given the city an opportunity to reexamine its workforce model with more people working from home. Cutting down on the need for office space could reduce the city’s carbon footprint, thus addressing its climate action goal.

“We could look at this as really reevaluating some things that hit a lot of our major goals,” she said.

To kick off the meeting, councilors and city staff were asked to describe something they are proud of achieving in their tenure and any regrets they may have.

Walker was proud of being able to steer conversations in a “direction it probably never would have gone before.”

Councilor Heather Hill highlighted her role as a conduit to different people and organizations in the community.

“It’s all about relationship building and earning and working to earn the trust of many people on different fronts,” she said.

Magill said she is proud of jumping into the role of councilor in January and learning as much as possible while being available to hearing different voices in the community and City Hall.

Blair and Councilors Lloyd Snook and Michael Payne commended the city’s response to the pandemic. Payne was also proud of the city’s investment in rent and mortgage relief programs and support for affordable housing.

Clerk of Council Kyna Thomas and Deputy City Manager Letitia Shelton said work is becoming more streamlined, which promotes better efficiency. Oberdorfer was proud to bring recognition to public works staff while improving services.

For Walkers regret, appearing to refer to Richardson’s departure, she said “I think we spent the last few months debating about a decision we had to make.” She says that she took some time away during the summer after multiple closed sessions and doesn’t want to leave the community in a “vulnerable position” again.

Hill regretted sometimes acting “with blinders on” and not noticing “red flags” ahead of certain decisions or conversations.

While he said the city has responded well to the pandemic, Snook was woebegone about its effect on other issues that have gone to the wayside, such as climate change.

Magill hasn’t been as engaged with the community and city staff as she was hoping to be during the campaign.

For Oberdorfer’s regret, he said “I do regret there were times where I listened, but didn’t hear.”

Blair said he is sorry that the city is perceived as totally dysfunctional. He said processes aren’t always smooth or pretty, but there’s a lot more public discussion than ther might be in other governments.

“There’s a lot of thoughtfulness in this organization. There’s a lot of debate. There’s a lot of give-and-take,” he said. “Oftentimes there’s a portrayal that it’s dysfunctional or it’s out of control”

Blair hoped the city’s work can be seen as a “refinement process” rather than dysfunctional.

Thomas wanted to better unwind and said her work can result in missing family moments and not connecting better to the community.

Thomas recommended recognizing staff more often for their work. Krisy Hammill, a senior budget analyst, said the city used to take nominations once a quarter of employees fulfilling some of the plan’s goals. The winners would be featured in posters throughout City Hall with a short write-up.

Shelton wants the city to take more problems as teachable moments.

“I know we want to make everyone safe and secure, but sometimes there’s a limit to what we can do,” she said. “My hope is that over the years we can get the council more financially savvy.”

Among its strengths, officials agreed that the community is very engaged in government and staff is resilient. However, they admitted not everyone takes part in the process.

“We haven’t been able to really make that connection and get that public engagement we want,” she said.

Officials briefly covered technology, which Hill said was “antiquated.”

Shelton agreed and implied that some officials didn’t want to update their systems. She said some staff haven’t worked outside of the city and aren’t “acceptable to you bringing in outside stuff because they feel like you’re stepping on what they’ve been doing for so long.”

“Even though I said earlier we have great staff, we still have some staff that are complacent that they don’t want to change. So when you try to bring in new changes, they shoot them down,” she said. “It’s just trying to get a buy-in of those who are complacent and set and not trying to do more than they have to.”

Walker said for everyone to follow the plan, people need to be open to change and reevaluating themselves or their work.

The council discussed some of the outside factors that would affect the plan, focusing on racial equity, leadership changes and long-term impacts of the pandemic.

“We just can’t forget that COVID is here,” Magill said. “COVID right now is driving so much because we don’t know how long it’s going to last.”

One of the few concrete points discussed at the meeting concerned infrastructure. Snook said the council needs to plan for the financial burden of school reconfiguration.

The school division wants to add sixth grade to Buford Middle School, send fifth grade back to the elementary schools and centralize preschool at Walker Upper Elementary School. Officials have said such a project would be transformative for students and help to address persistent achievement gaps and equity issues.

A 2017 growth and capacity study from VMDO Architects estimated that the reconfiguration plan could cost $55 million to $80 million.

Thomas and Oberdorfer pointed out that it’s not just the schools as most of the city’s infrastructure is aging and needs updating.

“To say that the can has been kicked down the road I think is an understatement,” Oberdorfer said.

Last year, Richardson proposed a new 200,000-square-foot complex to house city and school administrative offices, parking, the police department, some city and Albemarle County joint services and retail space.

The city sought proposals to design the building last fall, but quickly rescinded it.

The city’s main structure on the Downtown Mall, which currently houses council chambers and administrative offices, was built in 1925 and expanded in 1967. The police department is housed in a connected building at 606 E. Market St. constructed in 1966. Other city administration offices are in the adjacent City Hall Annex, built in 1992.

Council closed by reviewing the five guiding principles of its existing plan: leadership, trust, creativity, excellence and respect.

The council bounced around a few words to replace the existing structure, including stewardship, racial equity, wellness, innovation, success, accountability, integrity and collaboration.

The council will work together with Blair on identifying guiding principles while Blair assembles a team to collaborate with department heads to get staff’s suggestions.

During public comments, speakers mostly discussed the need to center the plan on tackling climate change. Some comments were around affordable housing and access to physical and mental health services.

Charles Kendig requested a way to measure outcomes from the plan, a topic supported by the council.

“No matter what we put down here, we need to take that next step to make sure these values are reflected in our day-to-day operations,” Magill said. “How does this become more than just a document on a piece of paper?”

The next work session is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 20. City Council will also take input during its regular meetings on Oct. 5 and Oct. 19.


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