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Split council votes down proposal on city manager hiring practices

A majority of Charlottesville City Councilors don’t want the panel to expand its oversight of the city manager’s hiring practices.

The council voted 3-2 on Monday to shoot down a revision to the city code that would require the city manager to seek the panel’s approval before hiring a candidate for deputy city manager or chief operating officer.

Councilors Heather Hill, Mike Signer and Kathy Galvin voted to kill the proposal. Mayor Nikuyah Walker and Councilor Wes Bellamy voted in favor of it.

The measure was proposed in the wake of some of City Manager Tarron Richardson’s shakeups to management organization. Walker said the proposal grew out of conversations among councilors about their relationship to senior administrative officials.

As part of a reorganization that took effect in July, Richardson initially created three deputy city managers and a deputy city manager/chief operating officer.

Assistant City Manager Mike Murphy was appointed to one of those positions, but announced Tuesday that he is stepping down at the end of the week. Public Works Director Paul Oberdorfer and former Assistant City Manager Leslie Beauregard were appointed as interim deputy city managers.

Those three positions were to report to the COO, a position filled by Letitia Shelton. Shelton, who was Richardson’s deputy city manager in DeSoto, Texas, is effectively the second-in-command and has the authority of the city manager when Richardson is absent. She was selected from among 42 applicants and started work July 29.

After Beauregard took a job as assistant city manager in Staunton in August, Shelton assumed her duties and the management structure was revised to three deputy city managers.

The proposed measure would not have applied to Shelton, only her successors. Walker said the proposal had nothing to do with Shelton personally.

Signer and Galvin said that requiring approval to hire the position would hinder Richardson’s ability to do his job.

“I really do see that this can be an encroachment on the city manager,” Galvin said. “I do believe it adds more confusion and I do think it does, in a way, hamper the city manager’s ability to pick their own staff.”

Signer said that rather than approving the measure as a one-off, the council needs to reexamine its role in the city’s government structure. Now that Charlottesville has a full-time, experienced city manager, Signer said previous operating procedures could be challenged.

The council’s role in day-to-day activities, or interactions with staff, has fluctuated since the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally.

Under former City Manager Maurice Jones, who came from a communications and sportscasting background, the panel started to create an Office of Council to facilitate communications with the elected officials and pursue policy proposals.

The office had a community engagement coordinator, who resigned over the summer, and the clerk of council’s role was expanded to chief of staff following the rally.

Signer said the office also helped councilors gather information because communication was poor between the council and Jones.

Jones resigned in May 2018. Mike Murphy stepped in as interim city manager until Richardson was hired in May.

The plan to hire council staff also was related to discussions about changing the council-manager form of government to a strong mayor system. In the latter structure, an elected mayor serves as the chief executive officer of the city rather than an appointed city manager.

“The lines were all kind of blurred before,” Signer said.

Hill was supportive of a directive that would require the city manager to consult the council on top hires and possibly conduct interview panels, but voted against Monday’s proposal because it required formal approval from the council.

Signer said Richardson deserves leeway to establish the city’s operation.

“It is a major transition,” he said. “I think [the proposal] represents an erosion of the city manager’s authority.”


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