The Charlottesville City Council spent all day at Morven Farms in Albemarle County on Friday to find better ways to communicate with each other and the public.
“We spent a lot of time on how this council works and interacts with city staff and how they work together,” said City Manager Maurice Jones. “Hopefully, the ideas we put on the table today will make us a more efficient and effective municipality.”
The facilitator for the annual retreat was A. Tyler St. Clair, who also performed a similar role between Albemarle County supervisors and top-level staff in June.
Jones said St. Clair was paid $2,000 for her work, which involved interviews with councilors before-hand.
Unlike previous retreats, the meeting dealt solely with how the council works as opposed to discussing specific public policy issues.
“It’s always important for elected bodies to do a check-in on how they’re doing on goals and objectives, as well as how they’re working together,” Jones said in an interview.
St. Clair said her role was to help councilors act as a body as opposed to five people who are elected for office to advance their own individual goals.
“Politics is about differentiating yourself,” she said. “It is difficult to move from politics to policy.”
A central theme of the day was how to keep the council focused on the big picture as opposed to getting bogged down in the details of day-to-day governance.
In the afternoon session, St. Clair asked the group to list the roles of the council, the mayor and the city manager.
Councilors established that their role includes developing policy, representing citizens, creating a vision for the city, approving a budget and hiring and evaluating the city manager.
They also established that they provide leadership.
“I’ve heard leadership described as you’re the one who decides what jungle to go to,” said Councilor Kathy Galvin. “Management decides how to get through it.”
The city manager’s role was re-established as executing policy decisions, hiring and supervising staff, facilitating the council’s decision-making and implementing city programs and projects.
“The city manager’s office is control central,” Galvin said. “It is watching everything and making sure that everything is happening at the right time.”
Unlike other cities, including Richmond and Lynchburg, Charlottesville’s mayor is not an executive figure. The council re-established that the mayor’s role is to sign contracts and legal documents, chair council meetings and set the agenda for meetings. The mayor also should provide leadership on the council.
“If it comes down to a 2-2 vote and the community is expecting a decision, the mayor reaches out to us,” said Councilor Bob Fenwick.
“I don’t always succeed,” said current Mayor Satyendra Huja. “You can’t always get five people to agree.”
Councilors also spent time discussing who should answer emails sent to the entire body.
“We are hit with a barrage of emails that are sent to council and I never know if I should answer individually,” Galvin said. “I would think that the mayor would respond but there’s an overwhelming amount of emails.”
The end of the day was spent developing a set of operating guidelines for how the council works.
“I’d like staff to feel comfortable to tell somebody that they’re not ready for us to make a decision,” Fenwick said.
Some councilors wanted meeting materials further in advance. Galvin said she wanted information 10 days in advance so she could get her questions to staff.
“There are two or three issues on every agenda that I ask a lot of questions about, and I feel that’s my responsibility,” Galvin said. “If I didn’t have to work and didn’t have meetings at night, I could get it done earlier.”
“I think if you look all over the state, I think you’re going to find you’re not going to get a lot more lead time,” said St. Clair.
One of the guidelines is that councilors should refrain from critiquing individual department heads or other city staff.
“If we have a problem with how personnel is doing something, we tell Maurice and he deals with it, and then we evaluate him,” said Councilor Kristin Szakos.
Councilors also addressed the topic of long meetings. They said they will try to limit the number of agenda items, will put similar topics on the same agenda, restrict the time for reports from outside agencies and encourage written reports when appropriate as opposed to presentations.
The council’s next meeting will be Tuesday, one day later than normal because of the Labor Day holiday.