With a new mayor appointed and ready to take the gavel, Charlottesville could be looking at a very different city government.
City Councilors last week voted 3-2 to appoint Councilor Lloyd Snook to a two-year term as mayor.
Snook, a lawyer who is entering his third year on council, was backed by new councilors Brian Pinkston and Juandiego Wade.
Snook said his most important goal is to find a permanent city manager and to stabilize relations between manager and council.
“The relationship between the mayor and the city manager is the most important in city government and, if you don’t get that right, you’re in bad shape,” Snook said. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought that the one way I know that I can have the most impact on that relationship is to be the mayor to choose the next city manager.”
Snook’s mayoral appointment met with different responses from different members of Charlottesville’s diverse political and activist community. Some said his experience could be an asset to the community and others questioned whether the city was going backward in terms of racial and economic diversity.
“[Snook] and I don’t always see eye to eye, but I do think he has the ability to navigate the details of some things that … haven’t been getting done,” said Molly Conger, who covers city meetings on Twitter and Patreon.
Conger, in posts on Twitter, cited Snook’s attention to detail and legal knowledge as advantages. Others worry that another white, male mayor would mean a slowdown on the equity efforts often championed by former Mayor Nikuyah Walker, who was the city’s first Black female mayor.
“I can see that we’re going to have another four years of dealing with a lack of transparency and a lack of accountability,” said Tanesha Hudson, an equity activist, after Snook’s appointment.
Hudson said she was concerned that Black officials such as Walker and former Police Chief RaShall Brackney, who came to power after the Unite the Right rally in 2017, had been pushed out of city government.
“You spoke about why you would be an effective leader and what you could do to build a team to focus on equity, affordable housing and a slew of other city issues, but you had a great team,” Hudson said.
Don Gathers, a racial equity activist and chairman the city’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, said he hopes that efforts towards civility and stability will not silence those in the community trying to foster change.
“Directing efforts towards stability and to doing the business and the affairs of the city doesn’t mean silencing those loudest in the city, but making sure that they are heard. Citizens demand and deserve to be heard and have actions followed up,” Gathers said.
Snook said people who know him know he cares about equity.
“About half of my [law] clients have been African American. I’ve been fighting racial discrimination issues even before I became a lawyer,” he said. “I filed my first objection to Virginia’s racist application of the death penalty about three weeks before I was actually admitted to the bar.”
Lloyd said people who know him through his time serving on city committees, working as a defense attorney and his time in office understand his support for equity.
“The people who don’t know me are going to have to try to figure me out and one of the things that they will do is look at what I actually do,” Snook said.
Charlottesville has several strong activist communities that support issues from racial equity to affordable housing to fiscal control of the city finances. Snook’s actions have often been controversial among different groups.
Snook caught flak for a December suggestion that the statue of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Shoshone interpreter Sacajawea should be sold to a real estate developer in Texas who owns a statuary garden, rather than to the Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center as supported by Sacajawea’s descendants.
During the time that Snook and Walker spent together on council, they frequently were at odds about how to address racial equity issues.
Snook said that while he often disagreed with Walker, he thinks she brought a unique and needed perspective to city government.
“One thing that she brought to being mayor is the sort of focus that she brought to virtually every decision on equity,” he said. “I don’t feel that I need to be quite the same advocate in that respect as she was. I think Ashley Marshall [Deputy City Manager for Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion] is in frankly a much better position than I am as mayor to make sure that the city government is responsive to the kinds of racial equity issues that Mayor Walker was concerned about.”
Snook said Walker’s time on council was an important step in moving the city toward racial equity.
“I acknowledge that she contributed to moving the city along into the future, in an important way, and I don’t want to lose sight of that,” Snook said.
Snook said he recognizes and respects the strong city manager and weak mayor form of government in Charlottesville.
“I don’t have the power to order [something]. I can express it as a desire, but unlike the desire of a king who has the power to lop off the head of somebody who displeases him, I don’t have the authority to make something happen. So I simply have to be persuasive,” he said. “That’s okay with me. People think I can just kind of order my way around. No, I can’t.”
Snook said while people might disagree with him on various policy issues, he thinks his organization and attention to detail will be his greatest asset.
“When I was running [for City Council] my son Michael, who is sort of an anarchist, gave an endorsement of me before the primary,” Snook said. “He basically said ‘he’s not going to be the most radical guy in the room but he’s somebody who appreciates the importance of getting the details right.’ And that’s what I tried to do.”
Snook said some may see him as off-putting because of his attention to detail.
“I’m not trying to be, but it’s important to me to get the details right,” he said. “And we will. And when we see that happen a couple of different times, I’m hoping they will say ‘not too bad.’”