Charlottesville City Councilors discuss possibility of transitioning to a strong-mayor form of government

The conversation came just over a week after the Council decided not to renew City Manager’s contract

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The Council’s discussion of transitioning to a strong-mayor form of government comes just over a week after the body decided not to renew City Manager Maurice Jones's (above) contract which expires in December of this year. 

Geremia Di Maro | Cavalier Daily

The Charlottesville City Council discussed and debated the merits of implementing a strong-mayor form of government in the City at its meeting Monday night. The discussion ensued after Paul Long — a long-time City resident and former independent candidate for Council — advocated for the transition during the community matters portion of the meeting. 

In Virginia, Richmond is currently the only locality which operates under a council-mayor form of government in which the mayor is the chief executive office in the city and is directly elected by voters. 

The City of Charlottesville presently operates under what is known as the council-manager form of government — common in many localities throughout Virginia — wherein an elected council appoints a city manager to act as the executive administrative authority in a municipality. Under this structure of governance, the mayor — also appointed by the Council every two years in Charlottesville — presides over Council meetings and structures their agendas, although the title is largely ceremonial. 

Long said the transition was necessary in the City after the ill-fated white nationalist demonstrations of Aug. 11 and 12 in Charlottesville. More specifically, he said a directly-elected mayor would hold the individual more accountable to the Council and the public. 

As a result of violent clashes between demonstrators and counter-protesters during the Unite the Right rally Aug. 12 with little interference from local or state police personnel — according to an independent review conducted by former U.S. attorney Tim Heaphy — the role of the City’s leadership at large has been called into question. 

During the City’s management of the rally, there was conflict between City Manager Maurice Jones and then-Mayor and current Councilor Mike Signer after he allegedly threatened to fire Jones and former police chief Al Thomas for not allowing him to enter a command center that day. 

In the weeks following the rally, a leaked Council memo also detailed the body’s frustrations regarding the police and city response to the demonstrations as uncertainty surrounded Jones’s future as city manager. 

Now, the Council’s discussion comes just over a week after the body decided not to renew Jones’s contract as city manager which expires in December of this year. 

Don Gathers — former chair of the Charlottesville Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces and one of the founders of Charlottesville’s chapter of Black Lives Matter — lamented the Council’s decision regarding Jones at Monday’s meeting, saying it was the latest unfair termination of a black man from a position of power in Charlottesville. 

Gathers referred to what he saw as the forced retirement of Thomas — a black man —  in December 2017 amidst criticism for the police response for the Unite the Right rally, while he said former deputy police chief Gary Pleasants — a white man who deployed tear gas against counter-protesters during a KKK rally in Charlottesville July 8 of last year — was allowed to retire with full benefits. 

“I haven't always agreed with you [Jones], but in my opinion you didn't deserve this,” Gathers said during the meeting. “So once again a black man is being held directly responsible and terminated, while whites that are blatantly wrong and out of line are allowed to saunter off into the sunset for retirement. It is what I refer to as a ‘job genocide’ for black men in positions of power in this city. Council, I sincerely believe that you have made a mistake that will ultimately come back to haunt us — where and when if ever does this stop?” 

According to the National League of Cities, the mayor — under a council-mayor form of government — typically assumes many of the powers and responsibilities normally carried out by a city manager under a council-manager form of government. Under the proposed transition to a strong mayor form of government, there would likely no longer be a city manager position in Charlottesville. 

Earlier this year in a discussion with the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, Councilor Wes Bellamy said he was planning on proposing the notion of the City’s transition to a directly elected mayorship in the Charlottesville sometime this year to hold the position more publicly accountable. 

At Monday’s meeting, Bellamy said he would like for the Council to cooperate with Del. David Toscano (D-Charlottesville) and the Virginia General Assembly to examine the process of transitioning to a strong mayor form of governance.

“I do think it’s worthy of us to consider,” Bellamy said. “We hear often from the community and the public that they want more accountability in light of recent events in regards to the direction which we decided move forward.” 

Councilor Kathy Galvin said she was open to the idea of looking into the logistics of the transition. However, she added that it would be a complex, multi-step process which would involve amending the City’s charter — or the legal document which grants legal municipal status to Charlottesville by the General Assembly. 

“I have no problem at this point with finding out more information about the process that needs to be done and taken to change this form of government,” Galvin said. “I think it would be very helpful for all of us, including the public, to understand all the steps.” 

Signer also said it was an avenue which the city should potentially pursue but cautioned that such a dramatic change in governing structure would require extensive public outreach. 

“I think it is a really important conversation, especially after what happened last year,” Signer said. “I think that community engagement, with all of the things we deal with, would be most important because this would really be something where a 50,000 person city would be involved with being governed in a fundamentally different way.”

Signer added that there is often confusion regarding the role of the mayor as the position does not currently entail any executive power or authority but is mostly ceremonial in nature. 

The Council did not take any formal action on the proposed transition Monday night but discussed tasking Jones or City Attorney Lisa Robertson with compiling more information about the potential process, although it is unclear when the matter may come before the body again. 

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