The first person to be elected as Charlottesville’s first independent City Councilor since 1948 has also become the city’s first female African-American mayor.
“The journey getting here for me personally was pretty intense,” said Nikuyah Walker, who received 7,926 votes in the November election. “Luckily I had a broad range of support.”
After a long public discussion Tuesday, Council voted 4-1 to elect Walker as the person who will coordinate and run their meetings for the next two years.
Councilor Kathy Galvin provided the lone vote against the new mayor after having also been nominated for the position.
Council also selected Democrat Heather Hill as vice mayor. Hill received 7,771 votes in the election.
“I certainly believe that we are a community that is looking for change and I would really look forward to the opportunity to partner with Ms. Walker in leading our city forward,” Hill said.
City Councilor Mike Signer opted not to run for a second term as mayor.
Previous mayors were selected among Councilors after private one-on-one discussions in advance of the vote. This new Council opted to publicly discuss who should become mayor.
Council rearranged the meeting to take public comment before the decision.
“I would really like to see our city run in a productive and effective way,” said Virginia Daugherty, a former city Councilor who served as mayor from 1998 to 2000. “My hope for 2018 is that our meetings settle down so that our Councilors can get something done.”
When Daugherty endorsed City Councilor Kathy Galvin, some members of the crowd booed and catcalled. Daugherty kept speaking despite being interrupted as City Manager Maurice Jones reminded the audience of the rules.
“Her experience will help to lead this Council on as it should be,” Daugherty said.
Decorum and civility have been absent during many of the council meetings in the aftermath the failed white nationalist rally in the city on Aug. 12. Citizens in the council chambers have been largely allowed to shout down speakers and officials with whom they disagree as they have simultaneously demanded accountability for decisions made before, during and after the rally by the police, council and city manager.
Walker had supporters but they stopped short of a full endorsement for her to be mayor.
“It’s a new council and a new year and I think that the message sent this last election is clearly that the city is ready for ready and wants transformational change,” said Michael Payne, who among other things called upon the body to revoke rules put in place in February 2016 that sought to limit opportunities for Councilor members to respond immediately to matters from the public.
Planning Commissioner Genevieve Keller urged Council to restore order during their meetings.
“I am alarmed by the abusive situations that often occur in this room,” Keller said. “They are not healthy or conducive to effective governance. Tonight I hope that we are initiating an era of mutual respect for all who live, work, study, shop or seek services in our city.”
Each Councilor then had five minutes to speak about their priorities for who they would select.
Hill went first.
“The five of us on Council first and foremost need to work effectively together,” Hill said. “Who is best suited to set the agenda, prioritize our current issues and objectively preside over our meetings based on the needs of the entire community?”
Hill said Galvin had the most experience but a new course is needed to navigate the city out of its current crisis.
“This includes a willingness and ability to truly listen and include the voices of others,” Hill said. “Nikuyah is the first independent candidate to win a Council seat since 1948. Her commitment to a new direction for our city and the time spent getting to know her make me excited to partner with her in the years ahead.”
Walker said the idea of becoming mayor had not crossed her mind during the campaign. She said if selected, she would learn the duties of the position.
“I sat in houses on Hardy Drive and Garrett Street as comfortably as I sat on Winston Road,” Walker said. “You can’t tell me I don’t belong, and we will have the conversations the city needs to have.”
During her speech, Galvin said Council has to listen to the public as it develops a compelling vision for the city.
“We’re also being demanded by our public to come up with a coherent results-oriented government and that’s especially important today in an era of national and global instability,” Galvin said. “Local government is where we can actually have the possibility of getting that effective government.”
Galvin said the community has tasked Council with coming together to govern. She said many said people can feel excluded from meetings if they are shouted down when they express their opinions.
“We can’t show bias in our proceedings or turn a blind eye to behaviors that are cruel, ridiculing and disrespectful of other human beings,” Galvin said. “That denies our own humanity and stifles reasoned debate which is the prerequisite for a free society of a self-governing people.”
After welcoming his new colleagues, Signer said he was looking for a mayor who could build consensus, who would promote compromise, who has compassion and who is willing to listen. He was then interrupted by some in the crowd. Jones restored order.
“As a student of democracy I want to say that I paid very close attention to the election results this November which is one reason why I am considering voting for Nikuyah Walker as mayor,” Signer said to applause. However, he was soon interrupted again and said the “bullying” might cause him to reconsider.
“I am not going to be shouted at and mocked from the floor,” Signer said. “That will not affect my decision one iota. I am going to try to make a decision in the best interest of the city.”
Bellamy said he supported Walker because of her intelligence but also because it would send an important message to the community.
“This [Council] has never had two African-Americans on its City Council,” Bellamy said. “If you look at the fact that we’ve never had an African-American female mayor, that tradition could be potentially broken tonight.”
Bellamy said people shouting from the crowd were not wrong and did not deserve to be lectured about civility. He said meetings may be difficult, but Council has consistently gotten through them and conducted city business.
“There is no returning back to normal,” Bellamy said. “Some will shake their heads and that’s fine. I really could care less about a future vote or another donation or you agreeing with me or not disagreeing with me. Because if we are here to make the entire city better then it’s time we start looking out for the people who have not received what they need in order to feel equitable and equal here in our community.”
Nominations on the floor
At the end of his speech, Bellamy nominated Walker as mayor. Signer seconded the nomination.
Hill nominated Galvin as mayor, and Galvin seconded her own nomination.
Walker then nominated Bellamy.
“When we started having this discussion, I was the one that pushed to make sure we have this discussion openly — so the transparency piece that I ran during my campaign — I wanted to make sure we had it in the public,” Walker said.
Walker said she ran for office to support the legacy of the late Holly Edwards, who served on City Council from 2008 to 2011. Edwards died last January.
“While she was alive, I repeatedly said no because it’s very hard for me to follow rules,” Walker said. “I have not done well with that my entire life. I go into a room and I challenge immediately. I challenge myself and I challenge other people.”
Signer told Walker he wanted to move past prior acrimony.
“You’ve said some very harsh things about me personally, and that’s okay,” Signer said. “It’s our job to work with the public and to get over it but I do want to know what your approach is going forward.”
Signer wanted to know if Walker would meet with him and other Councilors in advance to discuss city business. The pair had asked for meetings with Walker before she was sworn in but she declined in part because she did not feel their messages of congratulations were sincere.
“Talking about official Council business is one thing,” Walker said. “Talking about congratulations… when I don’t think either one of you were excited about me being elected to Council. That was something I didn’t want to pretend. Now we can move forward with city business and hopefully we will work at it together.”
Having said that, Walker said she would be meeting with Galvin on Thursday.
Galvin said her congratulations were sincere, but also acknowledged she had supported the two Democrats in the race. Democrat Amy Laufer placed a close third behind Walker and Hill with 7,711 votes.
Galvin said she was concerned that if Walker wanted to make change, she would not be able to find time to become an effective legislator because she would be running meetings and building consensus.
Repeatedly throughout the discussion, members of the crowd tried to make themselves heard. Councilors were frequently interrupted.
Signer asked Walker how she would run meetings.
“I definitely think we need to change the rules,” Walker said, adding her experience in mental health services has trained her to be able to listen to people. “I know what was happening this summer and I would have been able to assist with that up here as a Councilor. People just want to be heard. They want to know that they are valued. And they want to know how we are going to prevent this in the future.”
Galvin said she would have preferred to meet with Walker in person before the public discussion.
“It would have been wonderful to have had a private conversation with [Walker] so that we wouldn’t be in a situation where every word I say is being met with a catcall and met with an insult,” Galvin said.
“We really don’t care,” one person could be heard to say from the audience.
Galvin made one last effort to make her case for her appointment as mayor, citing her time on the school board and her successful reelection campaign in 2015.
“We’ll never give you peace, Kathy, never!” one woman shouted from the hallway, prompting laughter and applause.
Signer took the opportunity to ask questions of Galvin. He said he was concerned about the level of work that Galvin would put on staff if she were chosen as mayor.
“You have a pattern of sending long emails with many questions to staff 24 hours before a meeting starts,” Signer said. “I really want to know as mayor how you would approach the staff in terms of managing that relationship and not overburdening them.”
Galvin responded that she has the right to ask questions and she will never stop doing so.
“It is fundamental to the role of a Councilor to make sure that they are doing their diligence and getting to the bottom of really important answers,” Galvin said. “I will never vote for anything that I do not understand.”
Bellamy said he would only have accepted the nomination if Walker declined, so he took himself out of the running when she did not.
“I am not voting for you just because of how you look,” Bellamy said. “I am nominating you because I believe you are intelligent beyond measure and I believe you have the strength that is needed and I firmly believe that you are the change that our community needs to see.”
Council voted 4 to 1 for Walker to be mayor with Galvin voting against.
Council then had to choose a vice mayor. Signer nominated Hill, but there was no second so Hill did so herself. Walker nominated Bellamy and Bellamy seconded himself.
Hill said she believed she has the skill sets and strengths necessary to complement Walker.
“I certainly recognize and understand that as new people that we would be entering into a similar situation as there was two years ago,” Hill said, referring to Signer and Bellamy becoming Council’s leaders at the beginning of their first term.
Bellamy said having two African-Americans in both leadership positions would send a message that the city is truly capable of changing.
“There’s been conversations that we need individuals with experience and I have served on Council,” Bellamy said. “I would be here to support [Walker] in every shape, form and fashion.”
Galvin said having two women in the leadership positions would also send a message.
“I do think the message is extremely important that we are working together across lines of race,” Galvin said.
When the vote was taken, Hill’s nomination went first. Council voted 3-2 for Hill with Bellamy and Walker voting against her nomination.
Council next meets on Tuesday, January 16. They will also hold a retreat on January 19.