A Mental Maze: what we can learn from Tarron Richardson's brief time as city manager
Tarron Richardson became city manager after a long, transparent, and rigorous hiring process, but Charlottesville never gave him a chance to succeed. Why?
"It is hard for me to see this as an issue that is so important that his disagreement with Council on this would be a cause for termination or a condition of his continued employment. If it doesn't rise to that level, we have to let him [Richardson] do his job, even if it means that he rejects Council's advice." - City Councilor Lloyd Snook, May 2020
When Tarron Richardson became Charlottesville City Manager in May 2019 the local media didn't seem particularly interested in finding out much about who he was and where he'd come from. A profile by Charlottesville Tomorrow ran a mere 326 words -- compared to a 1,350-word piece that introduced current city manager Chip Boyles -- and nowhere in that story, or in others by local media, did we learn that Richardson had been the first in his family to get a college degree, or that he had become the first African-American city manager of Desoto, Texas in his 30s, the position he’d held for nearly a decade before coming to Charlottesville. As for Desoto, Texas, no local media pointed out that it was the demographic mirror opposite of Charlottesville -- roughly the same population and median income, but with a population that is 68% Black and 17% White. Desoto's Black and White populations were about the same in 2000, but by 2010 the Texas city had transformed into a majority Black community. As for Charlottesville, its demographics haven't changed for decades, despite a 13 percent growth in population over the last one, and is roughly 70% White and 20% Black. In fact, the Black population in Charlottesville was larger (22%) in 2000 than it is today.
Clearly, Richardson was aware of those differences and knew that he would be working with a majority white community seemingly disinclined to close the gap on its demographics, and that was used to hiring city administrators from inside its own bureaucracy. Indeed, for over 70 years Charlottesville city managers had typically been white men chosen from the ranks of city government and had served for long periods of time. Even our first African-American city manager, Maurice Jones, who was selected in 2011, had served as assistant city manager under Gary O'Connell, who, in addition to being city manager for 15 years, was assistant city manager under Cole Hendricks - who served for 25 years - for 14 years before that.
Richardson's hiring, however, would be a historic departure from that way of handling city business. In the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in 2017, and under the leadership of a new mayor, the first African-American woman to hold the position in the City's history, the city took a different approach to hiring a city manager, contracting with an outside consulting firm to screen applicants, 37 in all, in a rigorous, year-long process that included stakeholder group meetings, a community survey, and public interviews of all three finalists. When Richardson, a fiscally conservative leader who had proudly announced he had lowered Desoto's tax rates in 2017, was finally chosen, Mayor Nikuyah Walker said that she hoped "we are all open to moving past ‘this is the way that things have been done’ and opening up to a new way of doing things."
“This decision really reflected the importance of having a robust interview process,” Councilor Heather Hill told the Daily Progress, “As he [Richardson] really progressed through it, I could see his innate traits as a leader become more and more apparent.”
“For me, I love to serve the public,” Richardson told the Daily Progress. “And I saw some of the challenges that Charlottesville has faced and I’ve seen great things in this community and I thought it was a great opportunity for me to use my experience and professional accomplishments to try and create unity within the community and the city.”
However, just 16 months later it would all fall apart. After months of internal and public criticism, and little support from City Council, Richardson would announce his resignation. A few months later, a consulting firm deemed our city government too dysfunctional to conduct a search for his replacement.
On his way out the door Richardson did an unusually candid interview with C-Ville Weekly, saying that "he was hampered by city officials who didn’t respect where their authority ended and his began.”
“A lot of people were expecting me to come in and say yes to everything, rubber stamp it,” Richardson told C-Ville Weekly. “But I’ve been doing this for a long time…So when you’re someone who says no to things that have been traditionally said yes to, you have issues.”
He also said that the Daily Progress "…for the most part...always portrayed me in a negative light, no matter what I did. All the positive things I’ve done have never been reported.”
“If you look at the history of The Daily Progress," he added, " has it always shown people of color in a positive light?”
Richardson also singled out, by way of omission, Mayor Walker and Councilor Hill, naming only the remaining and some former Councilors as those he had worked well with. Indeed, an email from C-Ville Weekly editor Ben Hitchcock asking Walker for comment on Richardson's omission immediately prompted emails from both Walker and Hill to City Attorney John Blair, the contents of which were entirely redacted, suggesting the two Councilwomen may have had some legal concerns about Richardson's public statements. Hill later took a photo of the issue of C-Ville Weekly in a newsbox with Richardson on the cover and texted it to Walker.
"You read it yet?" Hill wrote, following it up later that evening with another, longer text that was redacted.
“No,” Walker responds.
Note: this story was made possible by research and Freedom of Information Act Requests for communications by city officials from local activist Tanesha Hudson.
“I’m not going to stand for someone calling me ignorant. As a black man, I feel like if I don’t say anything, I don’t correct him, that he will say it to another person of color.” - former City Manager Tarron Richardson
The Daily Progress would run a long, friendly piece about Richardson's basketball career at Lincoln University - where he still holds records for points and rebounds and was inducted into the school's Athletic Hall of Fame, - an editorial later commending his rigorous zero-balance budgeting, and a defense of his performance from former city councilor Kathy Galvin after he resigned, but within months of Richardson’s hiring the paper began running rigorous investigative pieces about problems within his administration. While city administrator exit stories are typically friendly affairs, the Daily Progress’s farewell story on Richardson read like an indictment:
Richardson’s administration has been marked by spats with city staff, elected officials and local activists.
During the budget process late last year, school officials had to scramble when they learned they would be getting significantly less than expected. Planning Commissioners were irritated that they weren’t included in the process for the Capital Improvement Program. Richardson also appeared to delay the promotion of a firefighter at the center of a budget battle before later approving it. He also drew ire from activists when incorrectly citing a policy allowing residents to request cameras be placed throughout the city for law enforcement.
In his 16-month tenure, city leadership has been gutted of longtime employees. He has also run afoul of activists and officials from other governments while butting heads with the City Council in the early days of the pandemic.
In the wake of city staff resignations following the 2017 Unite the Right Rally, a new City Council, the pandemic, and the protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd, it was a tumultuous time in Charlottesville while Richardson was city manager, particularly for a Black city manager. Tensions were certainly high. But while many of the conflicts that were reported on were legitimate, and the reporting thorough, the critical focus on Richardson's administration wasn't typical of past coverage of city bureaucrats.
When former City Manager Gary O'Connell retired in 2010 after 15 years the Daily Progress mentioned some mild criticism about perceived "budgetary excess" over the years - the city budget was $57 million when O'Connell started and $142 million when he left, and city staff swelled from 600 to 900 - but other than that O'Connell's 15-year tenure as city manager was presented as completely unblemished. When Deputy City Manager Mike Murphy retired in December 2019 after 25 years, the only controversy or irregularity about Murphy mentioned in the Daily Progress farewell story involved him showing up to be interviewed in a t-shirt and jeans "rather than his typical button-up shirt and tie." The Daily Progress would, however, chose to go out on a limb by reporting that Murphy had "reportedly" written a memo prior to Richardson's resignation alleging misconduct and mismanagement, which C-Ville Weekly repeated, without having seen the memo or being able to confirm it existed.
There would be some critical coverage of Maurice Jones' departure, which focused on his and other city officials handling of events before and after the 2017 Unite the Right Rally, but nothing compared to what was heaped on Richardson.
In early March 2020, when the pandemic was just becoming a chilling reality, the Daily Progress ran a story about some email exchanges between Richardson and the head of the city’s firefighters union over budget concerns and staffing. Basically, Firefighter Greg Wright emailed City Council to complain that the city manager didn't understand the fire department's staffing needs.
Wright called Richardson, who has a doctorate in public policy and administration, “willfully ignorant” with a “complete lack of a basic understanding” that “cannot be tolerated” as the budget process moves forward, according to the Daily Progress.
Wright, however, appears not to have known that City Council's general email goes to Richardson as well, and the city manager gave him an earful, which the Daily Progress characterized as "going on the attack."
“You are a firefighter who oversees a limited number of employees on a daily basis. Your educational achievements and certifications, as well as your limited work experience as a supervisor, will never be a match to any of my qualifications or credentials,” wrote Richardson, who holds a doctorate. “So, let’s be clear about who is ignorant and overwhelmingly shallow as a professional in the field of public administration.”
Wright, who admitted "the verbiage I used was direct,” said he was "taken aback" by Richardson's comments.
"We clearly are not illiterate or uneducated,” Wright said. “He was willing to put his response in black-and-white and share it. I can’t imagine what he’s saying when there’s no record of it.”
Now, in addition to reminding readers who actually started this, here's where some understanding about Richardson's life might have been useful. As already mentioned, Richardson was the first in his family to go to college and get a doctorate and had become Desoto's first African-American city manager in his early 30s. Some awareness of the discrimination that educated and successful Black men face as they move up the professional ranks might have been helpful. Instead, the Daily Progress would provide some cover for people to express a particular kind of resentment that would increase in intensity over the coming months by leaving Richardson hanging out there with this:
Richardson defended his response to Wright after a City Council budget work session Thursday evening and framed the issue around race. “I’m not going to stand for someone calling me ignorant,” he said. “As a black man, I feel like if I don’t say anything, I don’t correct him, that he will say it to another person of color.”
According to a 2019 Pew Research study, Black people who have attended college are actually subjected to more incidents of people "acting as if they were not smart than" than Black people who haven't attended college. Political scientists Donald Kinder and David Sears attributed this to what they called “symbolic racism,” which they said was “a blend of anti-black affect and traditional American moral values…a form of resistance to change in the racial status quo based on moral feelings that blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self-reliance, the work ethic, obedience, and discipline.” Since successful, educated, and wealthy Black people can't so easily be seen as inferior, the focus always turns toward a lack of character, discipline, or some other moral failing.
"The “racist,” after all, is a figure of stigma," wrote NYT columnist Jamelle Bouie in 2017. "Few people want to be one, even as they’re inclined to believe the measurable disadvantages blacks face are caused by something other than structural racism. Framing blacks as deficient and pathological rather than inferior offers a path out for those caught in that mental maze."
The Daily Progress would run no less than three opinion pieces about Richardson's comments to the firefighter, including an editorial, all of which could have been case studies for what Bouie was talking about.
A Greene County resident called Richardson's email a "classic example of an emotional response," adding that it was "unsettling that Charlottesville’s highest executive lacks such self-discipline and good judgment. Moreover, his flaunting of his advanced education — done apparently to put a subordinate in his place — speaks to his arrogance and insecurity."
A reader from Norfolk insisted that Richardson was responding to "just one word taken completely out of context," and a Charlottesville reader claimed that "the faction of people who insist on claiming racism is rampant undermines society."
As for the Daily Progress, in what reads like a lecture you might give to children about controlling their anger and being nice to each other, they speculate that Richardson had been "triggered" by the word "ignorant" and that his emotions had clouded his professional judgment.
Of course, after Richardson "framed the issue around race," as the Daily Progress put it, that's all it took for online comments (see these comments alongside an NBC29 story) about Richardson, as well as comments from city officials, to take on a menacing, disproportional and personal tone.
The Chief Baxter Effect
“Heather - need to touch base with you today. If I’m going to be the City’s Incident Commander, develop and execute an effective strategy to get this City through this crisis and prepared for recovery, I need her [DCM Shelton] out of my way.”- former Charlottesville Fire Chief Andrew Baxter in email to Councilor Heather Hill.
One of the most vocal and influential critics of Richardson's administration was former Fire Chief Andrew Baxter, who was not shy about sharing his grievances.
On March 12, 2020, Richardson sent a letter to City Council informing them that he would be out of the office between March 13 and March 16, and to contact Deputy City Manager Letitia Shelton in his absence. "As always," Richardson wrote, "I will be available via cell phone." According to sources, Richardson was seeking to spend some time with his children during an extended weekend.
"I’m speechless... A pandemic," Baxter declared in an email to Councilor Heather Hill, to whom he frequently directed his complaints about Richardson. Someone had apparently forwarded him the letter. "I hope to God this is a family emergency. Otherwise, this is a gross dereliction of duty..."
Baxter, who had become the City's Incident Commander amid the early stages of the pandemic, complained again to Councilor Hill in March about Deputy City Manager Shelton nixing his idea about creating a separate "Employee Support Branch" to provide resources for staff without having to go through the finance department. There was a growing concern, according to various sources, that the fiscally conservative city manager wasn’t spending as freely as some felt he should have during the early stages of the pandemic.
"Heather - need to touch base with you today," wrote Baxter. "If I’m going to be the City’s Incident Commander, develop and execute an effective strategy to get this City through this crisis and prepared for recovery, I need her [Shelton] out of my way. Her only role to date has been to say “no”. She has contributed not one single thought or guidance throughout our preparation or response to date."
A week later, in a response to a resource request from the Charlottesville Police Department for $4,500 for cleaning supplies, Shelton writes, "I have signed the attached request, although, it appears the request is for a whole year of supplies for the Police Department." Indeed, in a separate email to colleagues, Charlottesville Police Officer Steve Knick, who made the request, admitted the "numbers might be big."
Again, after Knick forwarded Baxter the email with Shelton, he complained to Councilor Hill.
"Her [Shelton's] wildly inappropriate response to Lt. Knick is consistent with her complete lack of understanding of the leadership role to which she has been entrusted," he wrote. “In normal circumstances, this is bad leadership. During a national emergency, this is unconscionable behavior."
"Ms. Shelton’s response, while not surprising to any of us who are routinely exposed to her transactional, negative, snarky approach to our workforce, must be addressed," Baxter continued. "Please note that Lt. Knick is not asking for anything to be done in response to this unprofessional behavior. However, I am."
Later, in June, Baxter would resign over disagreements he said he had with Richardson. “Many of us in senior leadership roles in our city were genuinely looking forward to new leadership after the chaos and drama that occurred in our city in 2017,” Baxter would write [in an email] to Wright [firefighter Greg Wright, who sparred with Richardson], the Daily Progress reported. “Unfortunately, what we got was a transactional, unfocused, disengaged, dismissive bully.”
Those kinds of comments about Richardson would permeate the local news coverage and online chatter about his administration in the months ahead. Indeed, even in that exit interview in C-Ville Weekly that was more or less favorable to Richardson, the "bully" charges are mentioned again, along with the behavioral observation that Richardson used to sit at city council meetings "expressionless, silently watching city business unfold around him," though no specific examples of his bullying or evidence that he was intellectually disengaged during city council meetings were provided.
In some sort of resignation letter to Richardson, which you can read here, Baxter touts his own accomplishments and the integrity of his staff, for which he provides a number of examples, while subtly and not so subtly demeaning Richardson.
"I believe that you and I possess a widely differing understanding of what constitutes acceptable, values-based, professional leadership," Baxter begins, going on to claim that in the lead up to, response, and recovery from the Unite Right Rally in 2017 the fire department "performed flawlessly under the worst conditions imaginable" and was "the only consistently functioning part of our government." Baxter also tells Richardson that without the continuing leadership the CFD provided "our community could not have engaged in what has become an important debate about the long-term impact of one of our Republic's two great, lasting, foundational sins, the legacy of slavery and racism."
Baxter then makes a point of telling Richardson that he believes our Confederate monuments represent a "cause rooted deeply in the most evil characteristics of human nature, and are an abomination, and should be removed," but then adds, "I am deeply concerned that your failure to communicate even the most basic expectations [for removing the statues], let alone a coherent strategy for the future of our community, is indicative of your understanding of the role of a leader and certainly not as our Director of Public Safety. I have little confidence that you will be able to rise to the public safety challenges we will likely face in the coming months."
At the end of the letter, Baxter circles back to the theme at the beginning, declaring that the "accomplishment for which I will always be most proud is not a program or initiative, or even the outcomes that we consistently achieve; rather it is the work we have accomplished at CFD to create a professional, family-centered, values-driven culture.”
In an earlier, separate email to Councilor Hill and Kaki Dimock, the director of human services [which Hill would share with her fellow Councilors], Baxter is less subtle, saying that Richardson "doesn't seem to want to be here" and "talks down about Charlottesville government and the community." He goes on to say that Richardson is "dismissive, disrespectful, frequently late, and fails to provide any leadership while in meetings...is constantly on his phone...and regularly leaves the city (Philly, Texas) without telling senior staff."
In the same email Baxter called Deputy City Manager Letitia Shelton "snide, dismissive, and rude," claimed that Paul Oberdorfer, who served as Public Works Director and later Deputy City Manager before taking a job as City Manager of Piqua, Ohio in 2020, was "amassing power, people, and budget to build his resume for City Manager position in another locality," and that Leslie Beauregard, the former assistant city manager in charge of finance and administration, "was the worst boss I ever had. Promoted above her abilities as a leader/manager." [Beauregard had worked in Charlottesville city government for 16 years, and left in 2019 to become assistant city manager of Staunton, where she beat out 62 applicants for the job]. Of former city manager Maurice Jones, who held the position for seven years, Baxter said he "had but one prism -- community perception. This clouded his ability to make difficult decisions and to hold people accountable. This was laid bare in the summer of 2017.”
"Don't take my word for it," writes Baxter, claiming others in city government feel the same has he does. "These are the people who have dedicated their professional lives to the community, a group that wants change. Just not this change." He then lists Teresa Vice Moore, Brian Daly, Mike Murphy, Emily Pelliccia, Kaki Dimock, Sue Moffett, and Krisy Hamill.
"At the appropriate time I feel we should reinforce the process that was followed and what was shared to set the record straight. We need employees to trust us now and in the months ahead more than ever." - Counclor Heather Hill
Ahead of a planned survey of city leaders, senior staff and employees about Richardson's job performance, the first time such a survey was conducted on a Charlottesville city manager, Councilor Hill, who was taking the lead on the survey, was already relaying complaints from city staff about Richardson, like the ones from Chief Baxter, to her fellow Councilors.
The survey, Hill told Councilors in a May 14, 2020 email, was an "opportunity" for "Lead Team members and other senior staff members selected by the City Council" to provide input for Council's evaluation of Richardson's job performance. "Any summary of these results that may be incorporated in Council's evaluation will be provided to the City Manager in an anonymized format designed to protect the respondents’ identities," Hill wrote.
On June 1, 2020, then-Deputy Fire Chief Emily Pelliccia wrote an email to Hill about the survey, cc'ing other councilors, saying that during an operation briefing [protesters had been flooding the streets] about planned public safety operations during protests, Richardson had talked about and mentioned the survey.
"He brought up the employee surveys and said that he is in the process of reading the responses now and he referenced some of the comments," Pelliccia wrote. "News of his remarks traveled fast and many of our employees at CFD are wondering if he did in fact receive the feedback we all provided?"
Hill, and other Councilors sought to reassure Pelliccia that Richardson had only been given a summary of the survey, with no names attached, but that didn't seem to prevent the panic that ensued among staff that Richardson might have access to the survey results.
On June 3, 2020, Hill informed her fellow Councilors that in addition to the communication they received from Pelliccia, a member of the "Lead Team" reached out to her, saying "they had heard from three different people that the city manager has copies of the evaluation surveys, not de-identified synopsis, and has said that to staff, which was interpreted as a veiled threat." They went on to say, reported Hill, that "people are really anxious about that and concerned about retaliation."
On June 4, 2020, Mayor Walker shared an email Richardson had written to city staff about the survey with Hill via text. It appeared to be an email Walker obtained as a result of a FOIA request. Walker, apparently, was in the habit of filing individual FOIA requests with the City to obtain information from the City Manager's office [more about that later]. Richardson's email was sent to city staff on May 29, ahead of the May 30 operating briefing that Pelliccia was referring to.
"I met with City Council to review my performance evaluation," Richardson wrote. "During our meeting, we discussed many of your concerns. I was extremely appreciative for your willingness to share your thoughts." Clearly, the need for communication must have been discussed during that meeting with Council, because Richardson emphasized that he planned to "improve in this particular area over the next 12 months" by continuing his "open door policy" and hosting quarterly meetings with employees. However, Richardson pointed out that only one-third of the city's workforce had completed the survey. "Next year, it is my hope that more of you will take part in this confidential performance appraisal," he said.
"My number one priority moving forward is to hear from the other two-thirds of our workforce in order for me to create a balanced approach toward truly understanding your desired wants and needs," Richardson said. " Thank you in advance for your willingness to share your thoughts, issues, and concerns. This will provide me with the necessary information to enhance my overall efficiency and effectiveness as your City Manager."
Apparently, Councilor Hill wasn't impressed. "Okay...I have a lot to say here but for one," she responded to Walker via text, "that doesn't really clarify the process which is the immediate item of concern."
The immediate item of concern being, at least for Council and members of the Lead Team, that some city employees feared Richardson had been given their survey comments with their names attached. Given the tenor of Richardson's May 29 email to city staff, and his willingness to expand his open-door policy, it's unclear why some staff felt threaten by Richardson and feared retaliation from him for their participation. Like the "bullying" charges, there's no evidence that Richardson had ever retaliated against any city staff during his time as city manager, or had a history of such behavior in the course of his career.
"At the appropriate time I feel we should reinforce the process that was followed and what was shared to set the record straight," Hill wrote to Walker in a text. "We need employees to trust us now and in the months ahead more than ever."
On June 1, 2020, ahead of signing off on the fiscal year 2021 budget later that evening, Councilor Snook sent a 4:18 am email to his fellow Councilors with the subject line: Chaos and Fear - Personnel. However, the entire body of the lengthy email was redacted. Mayor Walker would respond around 9:00 am that morning, but the entire body of her email was also redacted.
Battle Over Office of Equity (this section appeared in a previously published article in the DTM)
"The City Code seems pretty clear to me that it is his call....we know that Tarron [Richardson] doesn't want this person to be a Deputy City Manager. I don't favor trying to jam this down Tarron's throat..." - City Councilor Llyod Snook, May 30, 2020
One of the big changes in the fiscal year 2022 budget, which hasn't received nearly enough attention, is the creation of a powerful new position within the city manager's office. The newly created, and long-titled Deputy City Manager for Race, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion will not only work to advance the city's racial equity agenda, but they will also manage no less than five departments, including Office of REDI, Office of Human Rights, Department of Social Services, Department of Human Services, and the Police Civilian Review Board. Indeed, salary, benefits, and incidentals for the position amount to $225,000, equal to what the city pays its city manager.
Current City manager Chip Boyles has said that the mayor and city council have made it "very, very clear" that establishing a "very high ranking position" like this within the city government has been a priority for their strategic planning, mentioning that the surrounding area governments, and UVA, have all created similar offices. However, internal City Council emails from May 2020 suggest that Richardson didn't agree with hiring another Deputy City Manager for the position, and at least one City Councilor believed it was the CM’s call to make.
"I still believe that we need to hire a Deputy City Manager of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion versus just a director," Mayor Walker insisted in a response to a May 20, 2020 email from Richardson, who was informing Council that he had drafted a job description for a Director of Equity. "This person needs to be in a position to implore changes within the organization and spearhead change externally. This person needs more power than a director level."
In December 2019, City Council had already signed off on $197,181 to be used to create a "department of equity" with a director position - based on the findings of an "advisory committee on equity" earlier in the year - to examine and address issues of inequity within city government and across the larger community. At the time, Human Resources Director Michele Vineyard told Council that such a department's work needed to be “incremental” to make a long-term impact, according to reporting by the Daily Progress. Richardson mentioned that the money allocated might not necessarily all be used in the coming fiscal year. It’s unclear why Walker was pushing for a Deputy City Manager position for the Office of Equity so late in the budget process.
On May 30, two days before Council would sign off on a reduced fiscal year 2021 budget, Walker brought up the subject again with her fellow councilors, while also leveling some criticism at the effectiveness of a Police Civilian Review Board.
"Would you all support hiring a Deputy City Manager of Equity?" Walker wrote. "If we are truly going to change the narrative of oppression and poverty in Charlottesville, we will have to uproot a lot of covert and overt issues. The PCRB is reactionary. It will not address the root causes that lead to the oppression that we experience in this country. This position [Deputy City Manager of Equity] will manage DSS, Human Services, Human Rights, PCRB, and the Office of Equity and ensure that internal equity measures are created by working with Human Resources and department leaders. This will be a heavy workload. We need to give the individual who will be hired for the position the proper pay and influence to truly be a change agent."
"I'm also in support of the posting of this director position as well as hiring someone at the Deputy City Manager level to oversee these crucial functions for the organization and the broader community," Councilor Heather Hill responded.
"I agree we need someone with a high degree of power in the organization to have that as their focus to ensure it is done," wrote Vice Mayor Sena Mcgill. " I just want to know ahead of time where we will pull the money to pay for the position so we are thinking through it to make sure it sticks."
"I have a very hard time understanding how this is our call to make," countered City Councilor Lloyd Snook. " The City Code seems pretty clear to me that it is his call....we know that Tarron [Richardson] doesn't want this person to be a Deputy City Manager. I don't favor trying to jam this down Tarron's throat..." [See City Code Sec. 2-149. - General authority with respect to city departments and personnel]
"This is not an attempt to shove this position down Dr. Richardson’s throat," Walker insisted, adding [her next sentence was completely redacted]. "It would be helpful for you to ask him directly what his vision is for the organization and community as it relates to equity.”
"I think we have to let the City Manager manage the City," Snook explained, suggesting that some on Council had discussed firing Richardson over his position on this appointment. "It is hard for me to see this as an issue that is so important that his disagreement with Council on this would be a cause for termination or a condition of his continued employment. If it doesn't rise to that level, we have to let him do his job, even if it means that he rejects Council's advice."
When Richardson's fiscal year 2021 budget was signed off on in June, not only was there no Deputy City Manager of Equity position included, it actually deferred spending for the Office of Equity and Inclusion altogether.
"City Council approved the creation of the [Office of Equity] mid-year FY 20. The proposed budget included $197,181 in new funding for this office. In an effort to mitigate the financial impacts of the COVID pandemic and because funds budgeted in FY 20 were not spent, the new funding was deferred and the unspent funds remaining at the end of FY20, will be carried over and the exact structure and work plan for the office will be further developed in FY 21."
Oddly enough, in July Councilors exchanged emails suggesting the city was moving forward with hiring a Deputy City Manager of Equity. And in August the job was posted online with a hiring salary range between $100,000 and $158,018 annually.
"I recommend that we wait until we hire the Deputy City Manager of Equity," wrote Walker on July 2, talking about a proposed meeting with the HRC [Human Rights Commission].
"I am open to us holding a meeting with the HRC before the Deputy City Manager is hired if only to hear their perspective and consider other structures for the commission and the staff positions that support it," Hill responded.
In March 2021, the Deputy City Manager for Race, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion position, complete with all the powers Walker had wanted it to have [and with the same title she had used for the position back in May 2020], would find itself highlighted in the fiscal year 2022 budget. Shortly after that, new City Manager Chip Boyles announced the hiring of Ashley Reynolds Marshall for the position.
Credit Where Credit is Due
“It’s of paramount importance [to accountability]. It holds folks accountable for the use of taxpayer dollars.” - City Manager Tarron Richardson, Daily Progress in August 2019.
After City Council finally adopted a new credit card policy, Mayor Walker blasted her fellow councilors over their votes on her Facebook page:
"Yesterday, the four other councilors -who haven’t created anything during their tenure- voted against allowing each councilor to have meaningful discretionary spending. Even the $2,200 that staff proposed, was decreased to $1000 because Lloyd believes that individuals councilors shouldn’t have discretionary spending. During our 2019 meeting, it was proposed that each councilor has a discretionary spending limit of $5000."
Actually, Richardson first proposed spending limits, along with a re-hauling of the city's credit card policy, shortly after he became city manager. Indeed, at a Council retreat in July 2019, the consensus was that the limit should be $5,000 a month, with a slightly higher amount for the Mayor, but Richardson disagreed with that and his proposal lowered that amount and put in procedures, he said, that were "designed to increase accountability and plug holes in the existing system that could allow misuse to slip through."
The Daily Progress's excellent early reporting on the city's disastrous credit card policy, and the spending habits of city officials, amounts to an example of Richardson's expertise, experience, and foresight at work, but somehow Richardson never got much credit for that. People were more alarmed with what individual city officials were spending money on, and later, the fact that Mayor Walker was using her credit card to buy people gift cards.
“It’s of paramount importance [to accountability]. It holds folks accountable for the use of taxpayer dollars,” he told the Daily Progress in August 2019. “There were so many different levels of checks and balances that it’s hard to do it. You wouldn’t be able to do it.” Richardson added that the current policy didn't "contain enough accountability measures or consequences."
Richardson had had some experience with a spending controversy in Desoto, Texas. A local official there would plead guilty in 2019 to misusing as much as $147,000 in taxpayer funds. Richard had put rigorous spending rules in place in 2013, but the Economic Development Corporation, of which the official was the director, refused to put them in place. After the scandal, Desoto announced that the EDC would be adopting the city’s “stringent policies concerning purchasing card usage.”
However, Council would never adopt Richardson's strict policy, even after a January 2020 report in the Daily Progress revealed that city officials had spent $1.49 million on their credit cards in 2019.
In February 2021, a year and a half after Richardson recommended his credit card policy changes, Mayor Walker found herself embroiled in a needless credit card scandal after revealing that the city attorney's office had warned Council that their credit card spending habits, particularly the Mayor's habit of buy gift cards for people, presented a "potential civil or criminal liability for individual counselors." Why the city attorney's office felt the need to issue such a memo focusing so clearly on the Mayor's credit card use, given that the weaknesses in the current credit card policy were already well-known, certainly raises questions, but ultimately any political shenanigans or potentially illegal spending was the result of not adopting Richardson's changes in the first place.
The Daily Progress briefly mentioned Richardson's efforts to tackle the credit card issue in a February 16 editorial, saying "clearer policies might have helped" in Mayor Walker's case. An April 2 editorial about Council's planned changes to the credit card policy didn’t even mention Richardson, saying only that "a previous attempt to tighten the policy went nowhere."
Ironically, the story around Mayor Walker’s credit card use would end up getting the same kind of intense media coverage that Richardson got for his exchange of words with the firefighter, prompting nine editorials and news stories alone from the Daily Progress [in addition to more from NBC29, CBS19, Charlottesville Tomorrow, Cville Weekly, and The DTM ], and providing those opposed to her leadership with a political cudgel.
Finally, in April 2021, City Council adopted a new credit card policy that gave Councilor's a $1,000 discretionary spending limit per year. Mayor Walker had wanted a $10,000 limit. It also puts in place clear spending rules and procedures and makes councilors subject to civil fines, payment of reimbursement to the city and/or criminal prosecution for not following them. Basically, the kind of spending limit reductions and procedures that Richarson had wanted all along.
The Government FOIAing the Government
"This is one of the most egregious violations of the council/manager form of government that I have experienced since I’ve been a councilor.” — Mayor Walker
As previously mentioned, Mayor Walker was in the unusual habit of filing individual FIOA requests with the City to obtain information from the City Manager's office. An August 20, 2020 FOIA request by Walker, for example, sought communications from Richardson and other city officials concerning layoffs of temporary city employees, and specifically about the decision to exempt certain Parks & Recreation employees from layoffs, including the position held by Walker herself. According to an email from city spokesperson Brian Wheeler, Walker received those records on September 9, two days before Richardson's resignation was announced. However, it appears she did not immediately share those records with her fellow Councilors. "All: Here’s the incomplete FOIA that I received," writes Walker in a September 25 email to her fellow Councilors. The contents of that FOIA request were not available.
Later, in October, Walker requested additional communications between Richardson and many more city officials about staff downsizing earlier in the year. This time, however, Wheeler informed Walker that the extensive records request would cost her $700.
More than a month later, on Dec 2, 2020, Walker fired off an email to Assistant City Attorney Lisa Robertson, City Attorney John Blair, Wheeler, and her fellow City Councilors: "This is one of the most egregious violations of the council/manager form of government that I have experienced since I’ve been a councilor," she wrote. " Lisa, I requested this information as a councilor. I requested this information because our City Manager was not providing Council with accurate information regarding his decision to fire our most vulnerable employees. Why am I not privy to this information without paying for it? Why did you all decide to charge me?"
"The scope of this specific FOIA request, however, is that of an individual Councilor and is therefore treated consistently with requests that come from any other individual and not a request of the Council as a body as Council can only act through its votes," Councilor Hill responded, going on to suggest that Councilors should request this kind of information as a group.
"Let me get this straight," responded Walker. " Are you saying that you would like me to get approval from two additional councilors before I request information on any topic or just this topic?”
A day later, Robertson provided some guidance, saying that "before seeking information that is specialized, and voluminous," it would be much easier on a City Manager if an individual Councilor would consult with their fellow councilors on the necessity of a request for information, and once in agreement, then ask the City Manager to put a report together....Simply copying a request to the City Manager and other councilors does not provide adequate guidance or information, it’s often perceived as a directive," said Robertson.
Walker, however, wasn't interested in procedure and appears to have taken the request for payment from Wheeler for the FIOA request as a personal affront.
"I decided that I’m not going to match the disrespect that I currently feeI from you all," Walker wrote in an email to Assistant City Attorney Lisa Robertson, City Attorney John Blair, Wheeler, and her fellow City Councilors. " I do not agree with how this has been handled. Lisa and/or John should have reached out to explain their position and why Brian had been instructed to send that email and charge me for information. Unless the four of you had previously informed them that you all were not interested in exploring the truth, we should have had further discussion…”
Oddly enough, no one seems to address this central question: why on earth was the Mayor of Charlottesville filing FIOA requests for information from her own government? And how wasn’t that a complete erosion of the spirit of council/manager form of government?
A Lone Defense from Galvin
In its totality, the coverage in the Daily Progress painted a picture of Richardson in constant conflict with city officials, but former city councilor Kathy Galvin didn’t see it that way in an opinion piece the Progress also published.
As Galvin points out, Richardson was a departure from the glad-handing administrators of the past and introduced "best practices to foster accountability and efficiency within city departments, such as modernizing record-keeping and application-review processes and updating the human resources policy manual." He also "began a search process for talented people from outside of Charlottesville’s bureaucracy to lead the city’s departments that continues to this day," said Galvin.
The West Main Street streetscape and Belmont Bridge projects, debated about for decades, finally secured state funding and have actual construction timelines, Galvin pointed out.
"Despite the pandemic and economic downturn, he and his team balanced the budget without resorting to massive layoffs of full-time employees while still investing in affordable housing. Experienced leadership pays off during a crisis," wrote Galvin.
Of course, none of this appeared in any local reporting after Richardson announced his resignation. A Charlottesville Tomorrow article on Richardson's departure ran just 400-words and hinted at an "unhealthy internal working dynamic" within city government but provided no specifics. Even the favorable C-Ville Weekly article focused more on the idea of his "reserved public demeanor" and his “tumultuous tenure” than any of his accomplishments, and never questioned how someone so supposedly quiet and reserved created such tumultuousness in the first place.
Indeed, it's striking how, by the end of Richardson's time in Charlottesville, a particular narrative had been cast, one that local media couldn’t help but mimic, even the broadminded C-Ville Weekly ; that of a maligned, unpopular, and isolated city administrator. Even when giving Richardson the opportunity to list his own accomplishments, they're referred to merely as a "handful of bureaucratic reforms," and in an attempt to present some community support for Richardson, which amounted to a half-sentence from activist Tenesha Hudson, the paper begrudgingly admits "he does leave with some admirers in town."
Asked by C-Ville Weekly what advice he'd give to someone wishing to be city manager of Charlottesville, Richardson apparently took a long pause before answering.
“I would say really understand what you’re getting into,” he said.