In a letter sent to Charlottesville City Council on Tuesday, Sidney C. Zemp said he does not want to be interim city manager because of “serious ethical shortcomings” on the council.
In the letter, Zemp said two social media posts by Mayor Nikuyah Walker, in which she said she was uncomfortable with how he had been chosen for the post, were only part of why he turned the job down.
“The controversy contrived by the mayor and her questionable motivations are only part of what I deem problematic for service to the city at the time,” Zemp's letter reads.
The city announced earlier this month that City Manager Maurice Jones will leave his position on July 31 to become town manager of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. On May 25, the council announced that it would not extend an employment agreement with Jones that expires in December.
A press release sent earlier this month said the council would name an interim city manager on July 20, but things went awry after Mayor Walker said on Twitter last week that the public “might have to protest” a council decision.
Instead of announcing their decision on Friday, after a majority of the councilors had decided to offer the job to Zemp, they met in a tense closed session that involved yelling and accusations of impropriety and unethical behavior.
Walker posted a video to Facebook that evening detailing what was discussed in the meeting. Councilors Mike Signer, Kathy Galvin and Heather Hill responded to her video with a joint statement on Monday. Councilor Wes Bellamy issued his own statement later that evening, saying he had changed his mind and no longer supported hiring Zemp.
In the letter, Zemp lambasted Walker.
“ ... The events of the week of July 16 and the mayor’s actions following the council’s decision revealed deeply troubling concerns with a lack of adherence to the rule of law concerning council decisions and observing Virginia statute governing personnel hiring practices, both of which the mayor openly flaunted,” the letter reads. “Both speak to serious ethical shortcomings, something I hope the council appreciates I cannot abide.”
Megan Rhyne, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the Virginia Freedom of Information Act gives governing bodies discretion to talk about hiring employees in private but that it is not mandatory for the discussions and personnel documents to remain confidential.
“I’ve never heard of a citation to another statute that says certain kinds of hiring decisions are confidential,” Rhyne said. “They can have internal rules that discourage them from speaking ‘out of turn,’ so to speak, but that would be for just that body. It wouldn’t have the force of law.”
Rhyne pointed out that she is not entirely sure whether there are other statutes governing personnel hiring practices that apply to the given situation.
“The top administrators for cities and counties have extensive influence in the council-manager form of local government. They are paid by the taxpayers but are not directly accountable to them,” Rhyne said Thursday on Twitter.
“The public has an enormous interest in knowing something about these administrators who will have the unobstructed ear of their elected officials,” she wrote.
In an email early Thursday morning, Walker did not respond directly to Zemp’s letter. She instead asked whether city officials had also released his cover letter and a video of the council's interview of Zemp. City officials did not release those materials.
“It appears that council wanted to release his letter berating me,” Walker said on her Facebook page later in the day. “[It] has everything to do with attempting [to] teach me a lesson and nothing to do with informing the public about their shoo-in selection.”
Walker said she wants the public to see what Zemp said to the council in the interview and his cover letter. She said it appeared that he wanted to serve as the permanent city manager after serving in the interim period.
Zemp worried in the letter that City Council's infighting would prevent him from managing effectively.
“Even if I did accept the council’s offer, it is clear I would be unable to serve the public needs, instead being mired in petty fights and paralysis, neither of which will help Charlottesville recover, much less resume normal activities,” he said.
After the closed session on Friday, Walker said she should not have used the word “protest” in her tweet from the night before. She said she wanted the public to be critical of the decision and question the council’s thinking but did not want protesters to disrupt any future meetings.
Walker has said she is opposed to Zemp’s appointment because she thinks he lacks municipal government experience.
"Given our current climate and where we are moving toward — equity for everyone in a thriving city that includes all citizens — it does not appear that he has the skills for that," she said Thursday morning.
According to his resume, Zemp has been the chief of staff of the U.S. Army Human Resources Command in Fort Knox, Kentucky, since 2015. Prior to that, he was the chief executive of an Army post in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he also served on a community policing panel, school board and chamber of commerce. His resume notes at least one Virginia connection: a political science degree from Christopher Newport University in Newport News.
Walker, who campaigned for office as an agent for change, has also said that she felt uncomfortable knowing that a community member had recommended Zemp for the position to Hill.
"If citizens and employees had a chance to meet him and ask questions, then that would be us making a decision as a community," she said. "It would have been different than him being handpicked by a community member who gave him to a councilor and was then put into the process.
“It felt like business as usual."
Hill has stated that she passed along Zemp's information to Chief of Staff Paige Rice, who then shared it with search firm Springsted-Waters. The statement she sent with Galvin and Signer earlier this week said the firm already had been working with Zemp on another job search.
City officials had declined to confirm or deny reports that the offer had been extended to Zemp. On Wednesday evening, however, Rice shared Zemp’s letter after Signer said Zemp “asked for it to be released.”
A source familiar with Zemp’s decision said he agreed to let the city release his letter and resume after “repeated requests” from councilors.
“Councilors asked Zemp for permission and he initially denied, but then last night agreed,” Rice said Thursday morning.
In a message Wednesday evening, Hill said councilors have received multiple questions about why Zemp withdrew from consideration. She said the council did not want to share information about the letter without his consent.
“We have been asked by multiple constituents for reasoning why he withdrew,” Hill said. “And it’s clear in his letter; so we were looking to provide that transparency to the public but also respect his right to privacy.”
After the council met in a closed session Tuesday, Rice said the city would announce Wednesday morning who the council asked to serve as the interim city manager after Zemp turned down the offer.
The city has yet to name who the council has selected. Rice now says an announcement will be made Friday.