The cost of conflict in Charlottesville's city government
"The city organization has been under extreme stress in recent years," reads a request for proposals issued by Charlottesville in December.
A seemingly endless feedback loop of public office casualties has prompted the city to hire a firm – the Robert Bobb Group, LLC – to provide city management services for the next six months.
To give a super short, CliffsNotes-level recap: Fire Chief Andrew Baxter resigned because of City Manager Tarron Richardson, who then left in 2020 and is now suing the city in a free speech case. City Attorney John Blair stepped in as interim city manager until Chip Boyles was hired a year ago. Boyles abruptly fired Police Chief RaShall Brackney in September, who's since demanded $3 million from the city for what she calls wrongful termination and discrimination. Brackney's termination prompted Mayor Nikuyah Walker to drop her reelection campaign, and her condemnation and public reaction convinced Boyles to jump ship. Then, Marc Woolley, who was hired as another interim city manager, and would have been the sixth person in the office since 2018 – turned down the job in November.
It's been a maelstrom of interpersonal hostility and conflicts over race and visions of reform. There are currently seven executive-level positions sitting vacant or filled by acting supervisors. But perhaps Robert C. Bobb, a former D.C. city administrator, and his consultants will be the ones to calm the sea.
"Mr. Bobb is well known for what he does. He has a lot of knowledge and experience," says W. Howard Myers. Myers is the former mayor and a current councilman of the city of Petersburg, which hired the firm to help them out of their own financial and management dire straits from 2016 to 2018. The Robert Bobb Group charged Petersburg $350,000 for the first six months of their services – Myers couldn't recall exactly how much they paid the firm after extending their contract. "It was in excess of six figures, but it was well worth every dime that we spent," he says.
According to the contract posted to the city's website, Charlottesville agreed to pay the Robert Bobb Group $155,000 for their services from now until the end of June. That's less than half of what Petersburg paid for the first six months, but it's still an increase over what an individual city manager would make – when Boyles left, his salary for an entire year was $209,000.
The Robert Bobb Group did not respond to WMRA's interview requests.
Myers said that some Petersburg residents objected to the firm's pricetag, and their strategies for cutting costs. But he advises "to take heed and to listen and understand what Mr. Bobb is trying to do to support Charlottesville. He has many, many years of service to the public. There's always someone who may dislike some of his suggestions, but most of his suggestions are for the betterment of the community."
Rob Alexander, a professor of political science at JMU, said bringing on a consulting firm could also signal to residents and future city manager candidates that Charlottesville is stabilizing. "To buy some time, to allow some things to settle down, make sure that the core services are in good shape, you know, come back to the budget cycle that is predictable, and then allow the council, whose job it is to hire a permanent person, to have more time to do so."
But from his perspective, societal wounds have contributed to the high rates of turnover, and will need to be addressed for the city to move forward. "We're in a context of much change happening in our, both broader society but in this case, in Charlottesville," Alexander says. "Huge community-level trauma with the Unite the Right rally and its aftermath, you know, that in itself creates lots of tension, different opinions, different ideas."
In its first meeting of the new year, city council selected a new mayor – and while much of the councilors' rhetoric centered on team-building and togetherness, there was a brief struggle for leadership, as both Lloyd Snook and Michael Payne were put forth as mayoral candidates. Snook won on a three to two vote. "I'd like to be the next mayor because I want to lead the recruitment of a good city manager who can lead Charlottesville for a decade or more," Snook said. "A city manager who shares our vision of an equitable and inclusive, high quality, high-functioning government. A city manager who has the training and experience to help us bring that vision to reality."
How council members will work with one another, and maybe someday, a fully staffed city, remains to be seen.