After operating with only four members for more than a month, Charlottesville City Council is officially whole again. Leah Puryear, four-term Charlottesville City School Board member and director of the University of Virginia’s Upward Bound Program since 1982, will begin her appointment on Monday and serve until the end of the year.

In a black K95 mask and green blazer, Puryear was sworn in by the city clerk Tuesday night. Mayor Lloyd Snook also left his seat to shake her hand, which he said “was not part of the official agenda.”

Puryear was one of 20 residents who applied to fill former Councilor Sena Magill’s seat after she resigned Jan. 11. Council narrowed that to a six-person shortlist, which included two former city councilors, a former school board president, a former election officer, and the former Ix Art Park Foundation Director. 

Council member Brian Pinkston called the decision “challenging” because “there were so many good people,” but said he was excited to work with Puryear. Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade concurred, noting that they were deliberating “literally to the last minute.”

“There’s a lot of folks on the list of applicants that I hope we will see in other times,” said Snook.

The finalists were publicly interviewed on Feb. 6, but final deliberations happened during the closed session of Tuesday’s City Council meeting. When asked if he could shed some light on the conversations that occurred during that hour, Snook replied “no,” but that he would talk about why Council selected Puryear.

“Leah is a very capable person,” he said. “She’s spent 16 years on the School Board. She knows local governance, she knows the community.”

Puryear’s experience working with other Council members, including her time on School Board with Vicemayor Juandiego Wade, also played a factor, Snook said.

“We ourselves have dealt with her many times and know her quite well,” said Snook. He also mentioned that Puryear “has had people criticize her before” and “has thick skin.”

The Harvard alum and 2021 recipient of the MLK Jr. Community Award boasts an impressive resume. In her application, she argued that her connections with UVA, Albemarle County Public Schools, and Charlottesville City School Board would prove useful. However, Puryear lacks any formal experience with zoning, something Mayor Snook previously said “would be really helpful.” Charlottesville is in the final stages of adopting a controversial new zoning ordinance that could increase housing density across the city. Council will likely vote on that ordinance this spring.

“I am reading, and learning, and relying on people that know more than I,” she told Charlottesville Tomorrow on Tuesday night, following her appointment. “The neighborhood in which I live could possibly be impacted by the new ordinance. Even if I was not on Council, that’s still a question. I’d still have to be doing my due diligence to see what is the impact of that.”

Councilor Pinkston previously told Charlottesville Tomorrow that the seat should only be open to candidates who will not seek re-election. Puryear has not said whether or not she intends to run when the seat is up for election this fall.

“At this point in time, I’ve applied and been accepted. I feel that going on Council I need to be focused on that,” she said.

Puryear told Charlottesville Tomorrow that her primary goals during her appointment include passing a budget, securing a permanent city manager, and working with the community to understand the “various implications” of the new zoning ordinance.

She also spoke passionately about the “health and wellness of the city.”

“I’m concerned about the health and wellness of the citizens, and our city employees and the health and wellness of the city from a financial standpoint,” she said.

Council must be “good stewards” of the increased real estate tax money the city may receive this year because assessed property values increased, she said. She proposed using some of the money for mental health services.

Despite the challenges, Puryear said she is excited by the opportunity to continue serving the city.

“I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get started,” she said at the meeting. “And I just want to say thank you again for entrusting me with this position and the rights and privileges thereof.”

A person with a blue shirt against a white wall looks at the camera

Eshaan Sarup

Eshaan Sarup is a 2021 UVA graduate and independent journalist who covers local government and education. They previously interned for C-VILLE Weekly. Find them @eshaansarup on Twitter or by email at eshaansarup [at] gmail [dot] com.