Emails show City Council challenged former CM Richardson's authority in the creation of new Office of Equity

Today, the City of Charlottesville suddenly announced the hiring of its first Deputy City Manager for Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. But there’s a bit of a backstory…

" 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

Today, the City of Charlottesville suddenly announced the hiring of its first Deputy City Manager for Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Ashley Reynolds Marshall, who most recently was the Chief Executive Officer for YWCA of Central Virginia. This was one of the big changes in the fiscal year 2022 budget, which hasn't received nearly enough attention, as it's a powerful new position within the City Manger's office. Marshall will not only work to advance the city's racial equity agenda, but she will also manage no less than five departments, including the 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 former City Manager Tarron Richardson didn't agree with hiring another Deputy City Manager for the position, but rather a director position and one City Councilor believed it was his call to make under city code. That Councilor also suggested that Richardson's position on this issue may have been considered "a cause for termination or a condition of his continued employment" by some on Council.

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 still believe that we need to hire a Deputy City Manager of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion versus just a director," Mayor Nikuyah 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.

Two months later Richardson would resign following a special meeting with City Council. In an exit interview with C-Ville Weekly, Richardson said that "he was hampered by city officials who didn’t respect where their authority ended and his began.” Indeed, from the moment Richardson, a self-described financial conservative who introduced zero-based budgeting, took the job in May 2019, his decisions designed to create greater efficiency were constantly challenged by city officials; from administrative structural changes he wanted to make within the CM’s office to changes he wanted to make to the city’s credit card policy, and cuts and reductions he wanted to make to city expenditures and staffing. By way of omission Richardson also indicated that some on City Council didn’t respect his authority, declining to mention City Councilor Heather Hill and Mayor Nikuyah Walker when asked by C-Ville Weekly who he had worked well with.

Ahead of the publication of that exit interview with Richardson in Cville-Weekly, editor Ben Hitchcock would ask Mayor Walker via email for comment about Richardson’s omission of her when asked about who he worked well with on Council. She would not provide one. But Hitchcock’s email would prompt both Walker and Hill to write emails to City Attorney John Blair, both of which were redacted in their entirety. Hill would also send a photo of the C-Ville Weekly issue in a newsbox with Richardson on the cover to Walker via text. "You read it yet?" she wrote. Walker's response was completely redacted.

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. And today, just weeks later, the city would announce the hiring of Ashley Reynolds Marshall.