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Citizens concerned with proposed City Council engagement policies

An attempt by Charlottesville officials to govern relations between the City Council and members of the public resulted in some angry comments from citizens Monday night.

“I find it ludicrous and shocking that several items on this proposal fly in the face of free speech,” said city resident Rebecca Quinn.

After a discussion at an August retreat about how to streamline city meetings, councilors agreed to allow city staff to write up a new policy to govern how they would act while in office.

That resulted in a draft policy that includes a request that Councilors provide a copy of all constituent correspondence to City Manager Maurice Jones and Mayor Satyendra Huja.

“We do not want our communications monitored,” said Charlottesville attorney Jeffrey Fogel. “We do not want to be monitored by Big Brother in Washington, and we do not want to be monitored by Little Brother here in Charlottesville.”

All written communications to a member of the City Council from citizens and staff are already subject to Freedom of Information Act requests and may be public documents.

Among the draft directives is a request that the five individual members of the council refrain from promising action by the city to citizens.

“Individual Councilors will not purport to speak for Council unless it is a decision on which the Council has taken a position,” read the draft policy guidelines.

“After Council reaches a consensus or the vote is taken, Councilors will support the decision and avoid undermining the decision or attempting to undo it through subsequent actions,” read another plank in the draft policy.

Fogel said that practice would have meant, in theory, that the 2014 membership of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors might not have been able to overturn a vote by the 2011 board to approve the Western Bypass.

Likening the guidelines to those recently proposed for the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors, Fogel said councilors who supported the draft should resign and the staff members who wrote it should retake civics courses.

“This provision gives new meaning to the phrase ‘the People’s Republic of Charlottesville,’” he said.

Quinn asked councilors to drop the draft policy until it could go through a public engagement process.

“I am shocked you would even get it to this point without public discussion,” Quinn said.

The draft policy was called into question by all five Councilors.

“Those [ideas] came out of the retreat, and it’s the first time we have been able to talk publicly about it,” said Councilor Dede Smith said. “I agree we need some more public input.”

Councilor Kristin Szakos agreed.

“They were meant to start discussion tonight,” she said. “They’re not set in stone, and they’re not going to go in as they are. But I think it’s important to have this conversation.”

Councilor Kathy Galvin said such policies were standard practice on other elected bodies and were intended to help the council become more efficient.

“This is a draft, and that is why it is up for discussion tonight,” Galvin said. “Once you become an elected official, you are responsible for governance and working together. The goal is to establish collegiality and that is the intent.”

However, the newest member of the City Council declared he would refuse to abide by the policies even if they are adopted.

“I think they are deeply flawed, and I do not think we should work on this any further,” said Councilor Bob Fenwick.

The response from citizens prompted Fenwick to make a motion to pull the item from the agenda due to a lack of public input. The Council agreed to take no action Monday but they did discuss the matter. A vote on the policies will take place at a future meeting.

“These are basically the minutes from our retreat, and they don’t read like a policy,” Smith said. “They are very reactionary and, ultimately, if we are going to have policies like this, they need to be more professional.”

Szakos said Fenwick never said anything against the policies at the retreat.

Fenwick responded it was his first retreat and he did not know how to make his opposition known at the time.

In other news, councilors were also scheduled to discuss the performance of City Manager Maurice Jones in closed session. No public action was taken.

Galvin said that the review would continue through November.

The council also approved an application for a $280,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Transportation to help pay for the final portion of a commuter trail that will run alongside the U.S. 250 Bypass. The city must make a $70,000 match and that funding will come from money set aside for bicycle infrastructure.

“This trail will provide bicycle and pedestrian access from Hydraulic Road to the Downtown Mall via Schenk’s Greenway,” said Chris Gensic, the city’s trail planner. “This grant will fund construction of the westernmost portion of the trail connecting Meadowbrook Heights Road to Hydraulic Road. At Hydraulic Road, the trail will connect to the Meadow Creek Trail systems, which will be constructed in 2015.”

The council also agreed to purchase 2.4 acres of land in Albemarle County along Meadow Creek for $40,000. The acquisition from the Brookmill Homeowner’s Association will help extend the new Meadow Creek Stream Valley Park.