Council holds public hearing on hiring of Charlottesville City Manager

Community residents and City Councilors called for transparency in the search process

MikeMurphy

Interim City Manager Mike Murphy will serve in his current position until City Council appoints a permanent City Manager sometime within the next six months. 

Geremia Di Maro | Cavalier Daily

Charlottesville City Council held a public hearing Monday evening to discuss the hiring of a permanent city manager — the City’s chief executive and administrator — where community members stressed the importance of transparency in the selection process.

The hearing comes after a dramatic and controversial selection process for recently-appointed Interim City Manager Mike Murphy, when councilors argued in a series of closed session meetings in July about the appropriate candidate for the position. Initially, Council extended an offer for the position of interim City Manager to Sidney Zemp last month. However, Zemp decided to decline the offer after Mayor Nikuyah Walker expressed her dissatisfaction with the selection process for Zemp in a series of social media posts. 

Murphy, a longtime City employee and former assistant city manager, is expected to remain in the role for roughly the next six months until a permanent city manager is chosen.

With the City embroiled in a number of lawsuits after the deadly Unite the Right rally last August and seeking to address growing crises in affordable housing and racial justice, Council chose in May not to extend the contract of City Manager Maurice Jones. Walker said in a statement the City needs “a fresh perspective and a new direction.” Jones became the city manager in Chapel Hill, N.C. when his contract expired in late July.

Murphy told City Council they must first determine a meaningful description of what Charlottesville’s City Manager does. For that, Murphy said, City Council should consult the community.

“Many steps along the way when you’ll want to encourage community engagement,” Murphy said. “But the first step is to find how the public can give you input on the position description.”

Local racial justice activist Don Gathers agreed.

“If the community yearns for anything, it’s transparency and inclusivity,” Gathers told City Council. So it’s very important … that this process remains open and available to the public, and if that means going out into the communities … I think that’s an important step to take.”

Gathers added he wants the City to take its time.

“We don’t have to push ourselves to rush through this,” Gathers said. “Let’s avoid any backroom deals.”

Walt Heinecke, an associate education professor at U.Va., disagreed with the “backroom deals,” too — referring to closed-door meetings that led to Murphy’s appointment.

“I thought the politics around the interim city manager process were really disturbing and really problematic,” Heinecke said. “Please, put those politics aside and think about what’s best for this community in terms of moving ahead. Sometimes you have to do the morally right thing instead of the procedurally right thing.”

Heinecke also stressed the importance of the city manager position.

“This position is extremely important for making systemic change in this community,” Heinecke said. “The entire country is watching us right now … they’re watching for us to make the right decisions about how to make transformational change.”

In the selection process, Heinecke called for a process that is “more transparent than ever before.”

“We have a whole new ballgame going on right now,” he told Council.

Councilor Kathy Galvin noted the importance of getting the selection process right, adding that the next city manager should be doing much more than just overseeing City services. 

“I certainly understand the importance of having a ‘change agent’ who is the city manager, not someone who is maintaining the status quo,” Galvin said. 

Galvin said City Council should focus on “getting some principles out there of both what we want the search process, the engagement process to look like, and then some principles of the person that we’re looking for to get the outcomes we want.”

Walker said a number of communities within Charlottesville were being considered for an extensive public engagement process regarding the permanent City Manager selection process. 

“We already have scheduled — or in the process of being scheduled — dinners in low-income neighborhoods to make sure we’re going out there to get those families’ perspectives, because they’re not usually at a meeting if we have a meeting at Carver [Recreation Center] or the Jefferson School, so we’re going to them,” Walker said.

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