A consulting firm has determined that Charlottesville’s government lacks the stability to effectively recruit a new city manager, leading to a call to wait until the next election to hire for the position, a sharp war of words and an emergency meeting.
The City Council will hold an emergency meeting at 11 a.m. Wednesday for a closed session to discuss prospective candidates for the city manager position, the contract for finding a city manager and consultation with legal counsel.
The latest imbroglio highlights building tensions within the council as it enters its second year of existence.
In response to inquiries Monday, the council issued a statement saying it has “decided to pause working with a search firm“ and is evaluating “next steps to stabilize the organization over the next 12-24 months.”
Police Chief RaShall Brackney was critical of the consultant, and said when he was interviewing her, Utilities Director Lauren Hildebrand and Charlottesville Area Transit Director Garland Williams for background that the interaction was an “unsettling and unprofessional interaction” and she pledged moving forward to “not interact with this consultant.”
However, Councilor Lloyd Snook posted on Facebook late Monday night that in following up with Williams and Hildebrand they did not describe the consultant as unprofessional and “neither found his behavior objectionable.” He said the decision to halt the search was tied to dysfunction on the council and the actions of Mayor Nikuyah Walker.
Councilor Sena Magill, Walker, Williams, Hildebrand and the search firm did not return requests for comment on Tuesday. Councilor Heather Hill declined comment. Because the search has been paused, Snook wrote on Facebook that the city is only paying the firm “for the time actually spent before realizing that the situation was impossible,” which would probably be around $5,000.
Snook said the consultant’s version of events from the call was “not substantially different in many respects” from Brackney’s account, “though he professed to be mystified about what had triggered her response.”
Snook’s post triggered a war of words online with Walker centered around the council’s decision to hire the firm.
Snook said the council interviewed five firms in October and chose Ralph Andersen because its principal, Robert Burg, “was the most candid” of the people interviewed about the challenge of hiring a city manager “with the leadership of the City in disarray.” According to Snook, Burg said “it is going to take a special kind of person to want to come to Charlottesville at the moment.”
According to Snook, he and Hill, Magill and Councilor Michael Payne supported the firm, but Walker did not.
Brackney emailed her concerns about Burg to the council on Dec. 4. On Tuesday morning, Snook provided The Daily Progress with an email sent to the council by Mayor Nikuyah Walker on Dec. 10 in which she said she would not meet with the consultant unless it was with the council as a whole.
Snook wrote in his post that he read Walker’s email to the consultant, who in turn said the division on council was deep enough to hinder the process of hiring anyone.
“He said that in his many years of doing executive searches, he had never seen a level of dysfunction as profound as what he was seeing here,” Snook wrote.
Snook said the consultant’s decision was not based on Brackney’s concerns, but rather was “directly attributable to the dysfunction on Council, starting with the Mayor and her email of December 10.”
In that email, Walker said her decision was based on the fact that “you all completely ignored my concerns regarding Mr. Burg,” and she had received feedback from Snook, Hill and Magill that it “feels as if I’m sabotaging progress within the city if things don’t go my way.” She said “if things don’t work out with this firm, I don’t want to be blamed for it.”
Snook wrote that Walker’s decision was “an abdication of her duty, and for no comprehensible reason.”
Walker said she was sending the email so “Lloyd doesn’t have to make faulty inferences again,” continuing that she doesn’t trust Snook and Hill and she’s “not going to be lied on.” She was referring to an email chain in which Walker had said she wanted to work with Hill on the Strategic Plan update so she wouldn’t have to bring new councilors “up to speed,” which Snook took to mean she wouldn’t work with anyone else. She also went on the defensive to Snook and Magill in other email chains in November and early December.
Walker continued that she believed it would be “extremely challenging” to select a city manager with the current council and “had hoped that things would have worked out with the previous city manager.”
Walker responded to Snook’s post, saying Burg was dismissive of “many factors that we claim are important to us,” such as “healing race relations, 2017 and how do we build in a meaningful way, and his statements regarding whether Dr. Richardson was hired just because he was Black and his recommendation that we not factor race into our next search.” Brackney expressed similar concerns in her email to the council.
In a separate post, Walker said white city residents are using division within the Black community “to move their own personal agenda forward, label our efforts since 2017 as a failure and use our fractured state to plead for Mike Murphy to return as the ‘interim’ City Manager.”
“I am tired of my white colleagues placing the blame for everything that goes wrong at my feet and using their fragility to excuse their cunning behavior and the cunning behavior of some staff and community members,” she wrote. “It’s also pathetic that the Black community is either warring on behalf of white people or quietly standing on the sidelines with the hopes that they [are] allowed to maintain their positions in the community.”
Murphy served as interim city manager after Maurice Jones’ contract was not renewed in the fallout of the Unite the Right rally. He held the post until May 2019, when Richardson started. Murphy left seven months later, but was able to stay on the city’s payroll for almost another year.
Snook continued the online battle Tuesday evening, saying when the firm was chosen that Walker “did not react as negatively as you now want to claim.” He said Walker did not provide a basis for her concerns at the time.
Snook said he doesn’t think the city should hire a permanent city manager until after the November election, when the seats of Walker and Hill are up for grabs. Walker has announced she will seek re-election, while Hill has not publicly made a decision.
Payne said in a Tuesday interview that the consultant’s recommendation was to not hire a full-time leader without stability on staff. Since 2017, top leadership and the City Council has virtually all turned over, with several department heads coming and going.
“Obviously getting stability by being able to bring in a permanent city manager is vital for the city going forward in order to take on anything that’s a priority for us,” he said. “We have to create stability in order to build the strongest organization possible.”
Payne said the council needs to work together, support staff and have rules to govern the interactions between the council and staff. He was hopeful the situation could be improved.
“I think Charlottesville is a local government that in the past has been extremely attractive to candidates and in the future can be attractive to candidates,” he said.
In a Tuesday interview, Snook said the city’s leadership is in turmoil partly because of a culture of being undermined by council or meddling from the council.
“The real question is what is it about the civic culture at this point that makes it so hard to keep management staff,” he said. “My sense of things is it has nothing to do with the substance of decisions that are getting made.”
Snook said staff surveys over the summer showed a perspective that the council was going beyond normal boundaries of council-manager form of government and getting too involved in day-to-day operations.
“There’s a fine line between oversight, which is proper for us, and interference, which is not proper for us,” he said. “When people think they do something to displease a councilor that they’re going to be called out on Facebook, they’re going to be discouraged.”
To monitor Wednesday’s meeting, visit charlottesville.gov/zoom. Although no end time is posted, the agenda indicates the council will hold a discussion and possible vote following the closed session.