Following legal inquiry into Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker’s “potentially unauthorized” council credit card spending, and a tense exchange between some councilors Tuesday evening, the City Council has scheduled a March 23 work session on its spending policy.
At the work session, council is set to reevaluate the policy to “streamline” it. In its current state, Walker insists, there was nothing in place to make her aware her spending may not have been within policy and the authorization of spending appears to fall on city staff.
The public became aware of the internal situation when Walker discussed them in a Feb. 7 Facebook Live and a series of posts or comment threads.
Citing a history of things within City Hall being “leaked,” Walker shared images of a Feb. 3 memo from Acting City Attorney Lisa Robertson that outlined legal parameters from state and local government.
“What did I do? Speakers come and speak, typically about how to infuse equity in the conversation. And I pay them,” Walker said during her live video. “Community members come up with solutions that people who are making $60-, $70-, $80-, $90-, $100-, $200,000 can’t come up with. And I give them $25 gift cards for every hour that they spend and devote to helping us heal this community.”
As the city customarily contracts with professional consultants who can propose solutions or policy recommendations, Walker said that the gift cards have been reciprocal for locals who do the same work.
The actions, however, may not be within legal scope of authorized spending, according to Robertson’s memo, and the matter, Walker said, was referred to the Commonwealth Attorney, Joe Platania — who will not yet comment on the situation.
The most recent version of the city’s credit card policy indicates that department heads are responsible for approving spending. Both on Facebook and during the latest council meeting, Walker recalled recent emails with the city’s director of finance where he helped resolve a credit card issue to purchase gift cards for some residents.
Following the public comment portion of the City Council meeting earlier this week, Walker addressed the ongoing situation and expressed the emotional impact it has had on her, as well.
“So this memo, receiving it was very hurtful,” Walker said. “To suggest that some kind of civil or criminal penalty that could take place as a result of — in this case less than $400 dollars — is more than insulting.”
The city policy reads that unauthorized use could lead to prosecution for embezzlement and Robertson’s memo reads that “even a small unauthorized purchase can have serious legal consequences.”
At the City Council meeting, Walker went on to allude to the interpersonal dynamics in City Hall between the council and staff, indicating a potential role it might play in having not been made aware that her actions may not have been within policy.
“There has to be a better way for these conversations to happen. I’m very concerned that, according to my colleague, Councilor [Heather] Hill, that part of the reason people are not having these discussions with me is because they are scared to have the conversations.”
Walker asserted that not only was she not made aware of the potential spending issues, but that she has always maintained respect when speaking with city staff.
“At no point did anyone say, ‘Hey,’” Walker explained. “That’s problematic … I walk down the hall sometimes before the pandemic and there are some employees that don’t even want to speak. I’ve had some very difficult —not rude — but difficult conversations with employees.”
The meeting conversation briefly devolved into an argument involving Hill, Walker and Councilor Lloyd Snook before moving onto additional agenda items. The council revisited the situation at the end of the meeting to set the work session date.
The work session could lead to changes in policy, something that Robertson’s memo mentioned would need to be implemented through ordinance or resolution.
Councilor Michael Payne also stated that there is will to formally include compensation of residents who assist with government matters.
“It has always been and remains the intention to update and clarify the policy so that there is a clearer, streamlined process for supporting council initiatives,” Payne explained.
He added that the council could create “a process that can allow for compensation of community members serving on boards and commissions that is streamlined and doesn’t create gray areas or uncertainty for staff and council.”
He noted how the city’s Planning Commission members receive stipends. Councilor Heather Hill also noted how council members also receive funding for their time and efforts.
“We are all committed to ensure that we have more voices at the table,” Hill echoed in a separate conversation with Charlottesville Tomorrow. “That might come in the form of a stipend for people participating.”
Councilor Sena Magill explained that typically, local government engagement has been overrepresented by the voices of those who have the time and financial resources to spend more time engaged.
“Our whole government is built on this whole volunteerism and civic duty ideal,” Magill said. “What that leads to is that those voices who have flexible jobs or are retired who can fit that into their schedules, can engage. Those voices are overrepresented sometimes.”
In figuring out how best to compensate individuals who serve on boards or workgroups and make policy recommendations, the council can “find a way to bring voices forward.”
Meanwhile, Snook is more cautious about the idea, noting the if everyone who serves on the city’s various boards, commissions, and task forces could get pricey.
“I understand the argument that paying people is necessary to keep civic engagement from being a hobby purely of the wealthy who can afford the time, but I’d like to know if there are other cities that do it, how they do it, what criteria they use,” he wrote in an email. “I’d like to look at the issue in detail — not just have the Mayor decide on a policy by herself and start spending the City’s money because it seems like a good idea to her.
Hill also noted that the council could potentially reshape the policy to cut city staff out of the authorization process.
“I don’t believe it’s appropriate for a subordinate to be the one responsible to review and process expenditures of the council,” she explained. “We have to have accountability as a body for expenditures.”
Magill further explained that the reasoning is due to different policy perimeters.
As city staff reports to the city manager, there is policy for staff’s use of city funds, Magill explained.
“Council has different issues they have to deal with and different types of purchases that they can make versus what city staff can make,” she said.
She also noted the “weird power structure” in staff authorizing council spending.
“You should never have your checks and balances be a person who is below you in the power structure of the hierarchy,” Magill said.
Magill also explained the nature of a city council in a representation structure not based on districts or wards and how council should be cohesive in its policies.
“We are expected to work together a little bit more than the whole state legislature is,” Magill explained. “It’s important that the five of us are working together on these things, but also important that we are providing checks and balances.”
As such, the Feb. 3 memo noted the impact of the Dillon Rule — state law that guides local governance.
“In Virginia, under the Dillon Rule, City Council, as a body, and individual city councilors, have no authority to take any action(s) — including purchasing goods or services for the City or City Council —unless purchasing authority has been conferred by state law (either a statute within the Virginia Code, or provisions within the City Charter) and properly implemented by a locality,” the memo read.
The work session will be a chance for the council to more clearly outline its spending procedures. And, Magill said, “it’s important to embrace this opportunity to do some systemic policy change.”
At the time of this publication, Charlottesville Tomorrow has not received a response from Walker, who typically does not speak with local media.