How does government currently work in Charlottesville? That was the general question posted to panelists Sunday at a forum cosponsored by Charlottesville Tomorrow and the League of Women Voters.
“People tend to look at local government to solve all community problems even though their powers are limited,” said Bitsy Waters, a former Charlottesville mayor. “It’s the job of [city] Councils to listen and figure out what they can and can’t do.”
The event held at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library’s Central Branch was the first of a series designed to educate newcomers to local politics on what’s come before and what could change.
“In the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville this past August, many citizens have asked us to hold educational programs that would inform citizens about how the local city government is structured today and how it might be structured in the future,” said Kerin Yates, president of the League of Women Voters.
Richard Schragger, a professor of law at the University of Virginia, is the author of City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age. He said citizens should understand both how local governments fit into our country’s federal system as well as how localities are structured in Virginia.
“Often the folks that are exercising power are not in fact the elected officials of the city but are actually officials either in the state government or the federal government,” Schragger said. “Cities all across the country are considered to be creatures of the state as a matter of federal Constitutional law.”
Schragger said most localities across the country have a council-manager form of government such as Charlottesville. In this set-up, elected officials serve as a legislature that acts as an executive and sometimes makes quasi-judicial decisions such as those related to land use.
“We do not have a singular executive that exercises power,” Schragger said. “The mayor is elected among the folks on the Council and that person speaks for the Council to the extent the Council wants them to do.”
Since 2010, City Manager Maurice Jones has made decisions that in other U.S. localities would be the realm of an elected mayor. In Virginia, only Richmond citizens have what is known as a “strong” mayor.
“The city manager doesn’t have political authority, but managerial authority,” Schragger said. “It’s a little bit confusing about who is supposed to do what in these kinds of systems.”
Charles Barbour served as the first African-American mayor from 1974 to 1976. He was clear who had the power when he was an elected official.
“The buck stopped with the Council even though the city manager ran the city,” Barbour said, who was served on Council from 1970 to 1978.
At the time, Barbour said Charlottesville was still coming out of state-sanctioned segregation and there was an opportunity for many changes. When Barbour joined Council in 1970, there was only one African-American on the school board, which was an appointed body at the time. He nominated a second person of color.
“That created a big stir because traditionally there was just one African-American on the school board,” Barbour said. “If you look around today you have many things that have changed.”
Barbour said African-Americans in the mid-20th century and before could only live in the heart of the city.
“Yet anyone could build a service station or garage next to African-American housing because that was the rule,” Barbour said. “We changed those rules. We rezoned so that could never happen again.”
Bitsy Waters was first elected to Council in 1988 and was made Mayor during her first term, just as has happened with current Mayor Nikuyah Walker,
“It was a steep learning curve,” Waters said. “Lots of things have changed since then but our form of government is basically the same.”
Waters explained that Councilors are elected in staggered terms to provide change as well as continuity. Each member represents the entire city rather than an individual ward. She said Virginia is unique in that cities and counties are separate from each other. That leads to duplication of services.
“We have the constraint of state and federal governments that have substantially reduced their financial support for schools, affordable housing and other services,” Waters said. “City government does not have the financial resources to make up for all of those deficits.”
Waters said the effects of those constraints can be seen in current events. Council cannot remove Confederate statues in municipal parks without permission from the General Assembly. A House bill to allow cities to relocate them to a museum failed to make it out of a committee late last month.
Tom Walls, executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, was also a panelist.
The next event in the series will be held on Feb. 25 at the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center beginning at 2:00 p.m. The topic will be “How might Charlottesville be governed differently in the future?”
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