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Council decides on process for hiring city attorney
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Sean Tubbs | Saturday, April 14, 2018 at 4:28 p.m.

The Charlottesville City Council will work with City Manager Maurice Jones on a search for the next leader of the city’s legal team.

“We don’t have a whole heck of lot of positions that we directly hire,” Councilor Kathy Galvin said at a meeting last week, adding that an internal candidate also could emerge from the process.

Craig Brown stepped down as city attorney in January to take a similar position in Manassas. He began work for the city in 1985. Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson is filling the role on an acting basis.

Under the city charter, the council hires the city manager, the clerk of council and the city’s finance director. The council has an advisory role in appointing the city attorney, according to city communications director Brian Wheeler.

Councilors discussed the matter on Tuesday just before they adopted a $179.7 million budget for fiscal year 2019.

Jones said the city’s human resources department has prepared a job description for an advertisement. That’s the way the process went in 2001 when Brown was elevated to the top legal post.

“If we were to do that, we would bring several candidates to talk to the council,” Jones said. “Another route to take is for the council and I to work with a headhunter.”

Jones said there have been preliminary talks with the human resources firm Springsted to work on the search. He said the city attorney must possess specific skills.

“While we would take applications from folks around the country, we really do need someone who is well-versed in Virginia municipal law,” Jones said.

Councilor Mike Signer agreed that Virginia is a unique state because cities and counties are independent of each other.

“It would be helpful for our attorneys to understand that,” Signer said.

Jones said the description would be shared with the group Local Government Attorneys of Virginia, as well as other municipal organizations.

A third option would be for councilors to work directly with a headhunter, allowing them the chance to see all applications before they are screened.

“Is it worth giving it a shot to have it [led by the] city manager?” asked Mayor Nikuyah Walker. “I would like for us to be able to have access to all the applications.”

Signer said he did not think a headhunter was necessary because there would be a narrow pool of applicants with experience in Virginia municipal law.

Jones said the headhunter could assist the process, but not manage it.

“If I am working with two members of council as kind of a subcommittee to shepherd this process, we may not need the full scope,” he said.

The annual salary range for the position is $80,264 to $178,554, according to the job description.

“My vote would be to use a very targeted search firm and we would all have access to [materials],” Galvin said. “We need to make sure we get a competitive search.”

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors promoted Greg Kamptner to serve as county attorney after Larry Davis retired in early 2016. Kamptner began working for Albemarle in 1995 and became deputy county attorney in 2007.

Galvin said she would prefer to look broadly, given the length of time since Brown’s appointment.

Assistant City Attorney Andrew Gore recently left that position and has been replaced by Sebastian Waisman.

The FY 2019 budget also includes funding for an additional attorney. Jones said that position will not be advertised until May or later.

Under current practices, one attorney is assigned to cover land use and supports the Planning Commission and the Board of Architectural Review. Robertson has been serving in that capacity, which also has involved a legal review of the city’s zoning code.

“One position has been focused in the past on social services and the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority,” Jones said. The CRHA is now represented by another attorney outside of city government.

Jones said the new city attorney will have the opportunity to rethink how the legal team is structured.

The position is vacant at a time when the city is facing legal battles on several fronts. In one, the city has been sued by a group who claims the council’s decision to remove two Confederate statues in downtown parks was unlawful.

In March 2016, the Charlottesville Parking Center sued the city over the management structure at the Water Street Parking Garage. That dispute is currently in mediation but the city has hired an outside attorney.

Last year, Albemarle County sued the city over the council’s decision to proceed with opening trails at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area to cyclists and runners. The land is within the county but is managed by the city’s parks and recreation department. There are no hearings scheduled for the suit.

The city also is looking for a permanent police chief following the resignation of Al Thomas last fall. Wheeler said the next round of interviews for that position will begin Thursday.

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