City of Charlottesville spokesman Brian Wheeler said Monday that former Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas will continue to until July 15, 2018. Following the release of an independent report criticizing the Charlottesville Police Department’s performance surrounding the “Unite the Right” rally in August of 2017, Thomas . Yet over the past 10 months, he has continued to receive regular installments of his salary of $134,514, according to Wheeler’s comments to Rob Schilling, a conservative radio show host. Upon his decision to retire, Thomas entered into contract negotiations with the City, the result of which apparently included his continued payment.
As a public entity, the City is paying Thomas with taxpayer money — yet the public is currently not privy to the reasoning behind such payment. Wheeler declined to provide the contract itself, citing Virginia law that protects personnel decisions and disciplinary actions. What Wheeler did not mention, however, was that the same law allows the records’ custodian to release such information at his or her discretion. The Charlottesville City Council has a responsibility to release this contract and any additional information relevant to Thomas’ continued payment, in an effort to be transparent with the Charlottesville community.
While the City did not explain the grounds for Thomas’ retirement, it appears that the report that preceded his leaving by two weeks contributed to his departure. Written by former U.S. Attorney and now University General Counsel Tim Heaphy, the characterized Thomas’ performance in preparation for and during the “Unite the Right” rally as a “slow-footed response to violence.” Heaphy also accused Thomas of deleting text messages relevant to the investigation which, if true, is a clear obstruction of the investigation itself.
Thomas categorically denied these accusations, through his lawyer, Kevin Martingayle, that “any allegations that [Thomas] attempted to cover up or mislead anyone, he absolutely disputes.” Regardless of the truth of these claims, it seems that Heaphy’s report contributed to Thomas leaving the department — something that could lead Charlottesville citizens to question whether he really left on his own terms. City Manager Maurice Jones stated at a City Council meeting in December that Thomas left voluntarily, but he failed to give insight into the specific circumstances that led to his departure.
Regardless of the specific reasons for his retirement, Charlottesville citizens should have access to the terms of Thomas’ separation from the department. In response to a Freedom of Information Act by Schilling, Wheeler stated that Thomas “was relieved of his duties as Chief of Police on December 18, 2017 and does not hold an active position with the Charlottesville Police Department.” The response also states, however, that Thomas will “continue to receive his former salary as Chief of Police until July 15, 2019.” The exact terms of the City’s agreement with Thomas are contained in a single contract, which the City is refusing to publish. No judgment should be passed on the decision to pay Thomas until the contract is released — there may be stipulations of which the public is unaware. It is clear, however, that the City’s refusal to publish the contract, and its decision to withhold the information until a FOIA request required its release, represents irresponsible leadership from the City government.
While it may not be required by law to release the contract, the City should publish it to strengthen transparency. Virginia Code Section — the code Wheeler cites in withholding the contract — does not mandate the release of information related to Thomas’ contract with the City. This section of code does, however, provide an opportunity for the information to be “disclosed by the custodian in his discretion.” The public is not entitled to the contract but as a measure of good faith, City Council should release the contract. Such a measure would increase the transparency of local government, a goal many have prioritized.
City government has a responsibility to inform its citizens of the uses of its taxpayer money. In withholding the fact that the City is continuing to pay Thomas, and in withholding the contract between him and the City, it is acting in bad faith towards its constituents. By releasing this information, the City can improve its leadership capability and its relationship with the greater Charlottesville community.
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