In advance of Election Day Nov. 7, Charlottesville Tomorrow has produced in-depth nonpartisan voter guides, featuring exclusive one-on-one interviews with all the candidates for the Charlottesville City Council and Charlottesville School Board. In advance of the election, we will also feature their responses to important questions about their qualifications, priorities, and key quality of life issues so that our citizens can compare candidates’ answers and make an informed choice.
Charlottesville Tomorrow’s 2017 Election Center website also features candidates in Albemarle County and links to the full written transcript and audio of these interviews.
All the following passages are verbatim excerpts from our interviews.
CHARLOTTESVILLE CITY COUNCIL, SECOND IN A SERIES
What would you like to see changed about the way City Council and the City Manager do business both at its meetings and outside the public eye?
Let me just say that the city manager serves as the chief administrative officer for the city translating city council priorities and priorities into action for the community. I don’t think that you need to break what works. And I think Maurice Jones, the city manager, has been doing a pretty good job. He’s gotten a lot of flak over the problems we’ve had this past summer. I don’t think that’s totally his fault. I think he deserves to be given a second chance. To make mistakes, we all do that because we’re human. Just go back and move forward, looking for a bright future, we will all be better off.
As you know, and I know it’s in your voter guide, Charlottesville currently operates under a city manager form of government, and you guys have shared with people in previous voter guides, that that means that the city council is responsible for the hiring and supervising of the city manager but beyond that all other hiring is done, and all the day to day operations are done, by the city manager. Neither the city manager or the mayor are elected which makes them less accountable to citizens. The mayor as a member of council does go through the election process but not to 9 become the mayor but just to become a member of this body. Every two years when a new council is seated at that point the main role of that mayor is to set the agenda.
I think that we all need to take a hard look at how we’re structured and really ask ourselves is it really servicing our community in the best way. Because I see it as transparency and accountability and how our city is managed, always a top priority of mine based on my experience, and it could not be more important now. As we have looked at obviously the last few months we have really been lacking in any accountability for anyone and a lot of blaming has been going around and that’s not productive and that’s not answering the questions that citizens have. And as needs and concerns are brought forward to city hall they often go into a black box. This really can be a remedied with information technologies that appropriately track issues with full transparency to both staff and citizens which provide clear consistent communication.
But changing the system is going to require a proactive, energetic and innovative leadership which fosters a passionate commitment to public service. Beyond the structure of our government making it less accountable the city’s strategic planning process in my opinion is ineffective — I think it really lacks accountability and I don’t think we have to go very far to get some ideas on how to make the government more effective. Albemarle County has an ongoing active strategic planning process that emphasizes its partnership with citizens, along with its leadership and it’s based largely on building trust between those constituents. The county’s strategic plan establishes clear goals and timelines that respond to the community’s priorities and the highest most immediate priorities are reflected in a two-year fiscal plan. This approach makes government more accountable in my opinion and more aligned with addressing the community’s priorities. And again as we look at more recent events, a lot of people including me were disappointed in the way they were handled. More than ever we need strong leaders who are committed to taking that responsibility. We need to find answers that our community seeks and work with them to solve our most complex issues. I believe I’m that kind of leader and I am not afraid to pull up my sleeves and really take a hard look at what it would take for us to possibly change the structure of how our city is managed.
First of all, city council is an elected body. When we’re discussing issues dealing with one another as council members, it can be open to the public, we’re not personnel. This little meeting they went into about [Mayor] Mike Signer and all this stuff, and I guess they went into one about [Councilor] Wes Bellamy…. You know, there are issues that can be open to the public and that’s one of them.
The city manager and the city council – and let’s understand something, I don’t do back flips for [City Manager] Maurice Jones, I’ve known him since he was at [NBC 29] — but your city manager and your city council have to work effectively. Also, the City Manager doesn’t hire an assistant city manager or directors until the city council approves it. I don’t just want my directors responsible to my city manager, because if there’s something going wrong and he wants to look good, he will stop it right at his office. I want to have an open-door policy that if something is wrong you can come to us, your name is not going to be released and stuff, and at least let us look into it. Inspect what you expect. I also have a concern that in a city of 42,000 people, we have two assistant city managers and a city manager who makes a quarter of a million dollars a year.
You know I don’t care how much we want to say ‘Charlottesville is a great city’ and ‘We’ve got all this money’ and stuff. No we don’t. It is ridiculous that we’re spending that much on staff. Some people are saying hire more staff, hire more staff. Government is not a business. We make our money off taxes, fees and fines. We cannot afford to blow money. We can’t afford to sit here and keep having this attrition of employees. Here one day and gone the next, people are getting frustrated. They’re things they should be able to come to us and talk to us about and we need to listen and not get offended. But that’s the only way it’s going to work.
And the city manager should not be over the police chief. We hire the police chief, actually I want a separate police department. But we hire someone who’s supposed to know the law, knows how to enforce law and oversee a department. You know we had one that’s very good, Gary Pleasants, he’s second in command. He’s been here, he knows the city, he’s well liked in all the neighborhoods. [Former Chief Tim] Longo was well liked in all the neighborhoods. Yeah you are going to have people that protest and come out and stuff. But look at what they do. I’ve been in the black neighborhoods and they say police chief [Thomas] they don’t see. They see Longo, they see Gary Pleasants. That’s what they want. They want communication. They want to see police. They want to be able to talk to them. I want to bring back the mounted police. You know but when it comes down to things, the city manager should not control the police department, because what happens if they have to arrest you? Then they’re afraid of being fired.
There are a lot of things I think we need to work on. I started the whole conversation about what the role of the City Council is and I think that’s important for the members to understand that. I think the City Council should adopt protocols for a way of working together. The school board has protocols and we stick to them and everyone’s expectations are the same then, and we can come at it more professionally.
And then I also believe that the City Council should have a self-evaluation where they’re evaluating themselves as a working unit to see where areas are that they could improve on. And then I would say the City Manager, I would expect a staff, especially a senior staff, report, like twice a year to the city council in a closed session. I think we need to understand how effective are the staff members and, then I believe the City Council needs to trust that the staff is doing their job and that they need to work with the City Manager to make that happen.
The other thing I think we need to do, I think increasing town halls. I think also something we’ve adopted on the school board is that each of the school board members is responsible for going to some of the PTO meetings throughout the year, and I think the City Council should adopt the same policy where we go to neighborhood association meetings throughout the year because we are meeting people then where they are and hearing from them in their area, so I’d be interested in that.
I also think if we could be broadcasting this on — oh, the phone — I’m trying to think of what that. We did a school board meeting this way. I know that the City Council meetings are broadcast, but it’s a lot, it’s very difficult at that time of day to be listening and I think if we could do it where we’re broadcasting it through a phone, as in a, you can call in and listen to it, I know that was really beneficial to me when I had three little kids and I wanted to give them a bath and get them to bed. Just bring the phone me and I could be listening to school board meetings that way. I would like to do that. And I think it’s just important that if you are on City Council that you know that people will just come to you all the time, and I felt that on the school board. A lot of conversations are at the football game or at the grocery store, honestly.
I believe that the City Council should meet once a week and I believe that the provision to have public comments at the beginning of the meeting should be unlimited, If there’s 50 people at the beginning of the meeting that want to address Council I would say let them come up and speak. Instead of giving them three minutes I would give them five to six minutes. I think one of the reasons I dislike Mayor Signer is when you have rules and sometimes you have to use your common sense to know when to put them aside if there’s good issues being discussed and people need more time to discuss it and if that means the meeting goes to two, three, four o’clock in the morning I think that’s part of being a City Council member and their responsibility is being willing to sit down there and listen to everybody that would like to address City Council. I believe the city manager should be allowed to do his job and I believe that Mayor Signer, I was told, has a doctorate degree as well as a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree and I don’t see how he didn’t know that the city manager [is the] chief official in terms of operating the city government day to day.
Well, first of all I would like for them to work from a place of integrity. If they do that, whether the public is watching, or media is present, things would be a lot different. But I think it’s unfair to place all the blame of the completely chaotic situation that we have going on right now because the Council and the City Manager and Charlottesville as a whole operates in this pretty chaotic space…. There are people with a lot of resources, a lot of money, who dictate a lot of what happens in this town. And usually, from what I’ve watched, I’m seeing councilors and the City Manager kind of follow suit to people who’ve neither been neglected or employed by people who’ve been elected. So I think that we need to bring a level of ethical behavior to our government that hasn’t been present. And the understanding to the City that the way we’ve done business in the past and the way we’ve treated one another in the past won’t be tolerated in the future. And I think that can only happen once there is a level of trust established and that things start being handled differently. Because if you walk through the departments, if you talk to people who work in various departments within the city, you see this kind of chaotic management level at, I’ve seen it everywhere. It’s very frustrating.
I work at Parks and Rec now, and I thought when I started working there after the very heavy social work type of work I was doing in the nonprofit realm before, you go to Parks and Rec, you think, ‘Hey we are only charged with the task of making sure people have fun experiences and enjoy their life,’ and then you get in there, and you have the same unethical behaviour, poor treatment of employees, you see pay discrepancies based on gender, which is also a city management issue, but you have managers at that level who are definitely ok with it. And you see bullying behavior, even within a place where you are charged with the task to make sure families have relaxing experiences. You know just it’s supposed to be fun and there’s nothing fun about even that experience. So again it’s one of the areas that no matter whether you are talking about criminal justice, or Parks and Rec, there are major issues. I think that happens when there are just major cultural issues and dysfunction within the base, at the core of things, and it just trickles down, spreads out to everyone.