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Opinion/Editorial: City manager to leave troubled tenure

Opinion/Editorial: City manager to leave troubled tenure

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Charlottesville City Manager Tarron Richardson was hired in a process that was notable for its openness: Top candidates were interviewed by City Council in public so that residents could get a firsthand understanding of the man or woman who might fill this important position.

That Mr. Richardson’s tenure was then fraught with dissension is a disappointment: We had hoped the open process would increase the city’s chances of hiring a candidate who was a good fit for the position.

Now City Council has to go through the exercise again. Citing personal reasons, Mr. Richardson recently tendered his resignation after a 16-month tenure.

“I just want to get some sleep,” he said, citing the stress of the coronavirus pandemic and the current round of racial justice protests stemming from the George Floyd killing. (Although so far the protests in Charlottesville have been peaceful, they have been a challenge to the city’s regulations on lawful assembly.)

Undeniably, Mr. Richardson walked into a volatile time in Charlottesville. He arrived two years after the deadly Unite the Right rally and when Charlottesville was struggling — and still is — with the aftermath of that tragedy.

As for that, he walked in with his eyes open. Indeed, there was hope among many people that the social, racial, economic and political turbulence existing in the city would provide an environment that could be transformed into positive change.

Some of those hopes have been realized.

The additional stressors he mentioned — COVID-19 and the current national unrest — could not have been predicted. They are taking a toll on everyone, but especially on public servants tasked with protecting the public and reacting to dangers — physical, economic, social — facing the public.

Yet, Mr. Richardson’s tenure also has been marked by an unusual level of discord — not just the pre-existing turbulence around him, but also disputes with other city employees, leading to their resignations, and even dissension with the City Council that employs him.

Two of the most prominent resignations were those of then Deputy City Manager Mike Murphy and Charlottesville Fire Chief Andrew Baxter. Mr. Baxter directly cited Mr. Richardson’s behavior as the reason he, and many other employees, were leaving, according to an email obtained by The Daily Progress via a request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Mr. Murphy reportedly wrote a four-page memo alleging mismanagement by Mr. Richardson, but that memo has been unobtainable.

The strain with City Council appears to center on the balance of power between the elected leaders and the appointed manager. Many councilors expect to be actively involved in city leadership, as opposed to simply delegating most decisions to their chief executive.

Certainly, Mr. Richardson came to Charlottesville at a volatile time of high tensions and great needs. That was exacerbated by the new pressures of COVID-19 and the intensifying racial and social justice crusade.

But it also seems likely that Mr. Richardson — whatever good intentions he and the councilors might have had when they embarked on this journey — was just not the right fit for this position at this time.

There will be better times ahead for both the city and the city manager.

Mr. Richardson will stay in his position through this month, and will be helping to train City Attorney John Blair to step into the job of interim city manager.

Mr. Blair’s appointment is reassuring; he has long experience with Charlottesville and its needs, and already is used to working with City Council.

He struck the right note when he said: “The one thing I would like to say personally is that I deeply believe that this city and its residents, its council and its workforce can work together and we can make this city a more just, fair, equitable and prosperous place.”

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