A longer look and listen: Charlottesville City Council hires regional administrator as next city manager
It’s not every day that City Council hires a city manager, but the occasion has become slightly less rare in recent years. As 2021 began, Council spent more than a dozen hours in closed session to discuss personnel issues related to the hiring of a City Manager. Charlottesville has had the Council-Manager form of government in place for nearly a hundred years but in recent years the form has been tested.
Maurice Jones, a former city communications director, held the position for eight years until Council opted not to extend his contract in 2018. Deputy City Manager Mike Murphy stepped into the role on an interim basis before Dr. Tarron Richardson was hired in May 2019. Three new Councilors took office in 2020, and Richardson resigned in September. City Attorney John Blair stepped into the role on an interim basis and a search firm had begun work, but news came out earlier this year they had with drawn from the process.
With that as prologue, Council held a press conference on January 14, 2021 to make an announcement.
“Thank you all for joining us today,” said Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker. “We are selecting and we are appointing a new city manager. Mr. Chip Boyles.”
Boyles has been the executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District for nearly seven years. If you’ve not heard of it, the TJPDC provides government services to the city as well as five surrounding counties. We’ll hear more about Boyles in a moment.
For now, Mayor Walker said the public deserved to know why this decision was made.
“We also are aware that the public will have a lot of questions about this process, why it was handled in this manner, and what our future process will look like,” Walker said.
For about an hour, Council took questions from the press about the hire, and what happens next. But first, Councilor Michael Payne read from a prepared statement representing the entire Council. Here’s the whole thing.
“Over the past week, City Council has held several closed sessions to discuss the state of the organization. We know that this has caused much speculation as to the reasons for these meetings and what is to come from them. Today we are announcing that Mr. John Blair will be leaving the City of Charlottesville effective March 5, 2021 having accepted a position as City Attorney in the City of Staunton. Mr. Blair’s final day as Acting City Manager will be February 12, 2021. Mr. Blair has served the city faithfully and diligently and we offer nothing but our sincerest thanks for his service in these challenging times for our city. We wish him the best in his career.
“With this, we would like to announce that Mr. Chip Boyles has agreed to join the organization as City Manager. After carefully balancing the needs of the city at this current time, we are offering Mr. Boyles the City Manager position with the goal of stabilizing the organization and rebuilding the leadership team within City Hall. Mr. Boyles, age 58, has served as Assistant City Manager and City Manager in the cities of Taneytown, Maryland; Hardeeville, South Carolina; and Clemson, South Carolina. Prior to most recently serving seven years as the Executive Director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission here in Charlottesville, Mr. Boyles was the Urban Development Director in the Mayor’s Office of the City/Parish of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“Over the past several months, city government has experienced significant turnover, uncertainty, and instability. This has occurred at a time when our community is facing historic challenges created by a global pandemic, economic instability, and the need to address long-standing inequities within our community.
“City Council must directly confront the causes of the instability within city government. We did not end up in this situation overnight. We will not get out of it overnight. The central task facing City Council over the next year is to work with the City Manager’s Office to rebuild stability and assemble a leadership team that applies professional, stable governance to the many issues facing our community. That is the foundation of serving our community and implementing sound public policy, and that foundation is cracked.
“Today is only the beginning of this work. Over the coming months, Council must take additional actions to change the dynamics within City Hall and create an environment of mission-driven teamwork, collaboration, and trust.
“Council must acknowledge its central role in creating the instability within city government. We will need to establish, and adhere to, clear procedures, expectations, and norms that govern how Council conducts business among itself, runs meetings, communicates with the City Manager’s Office and city staff, and prioritizes public policy. City government is filled with dedicated public servants who work daily to serve our community; it is City Council’s responsibility to show leadership and make the changes necessary to create an environment where city staff are empowered to lead the organization and execute Council’s policy priorities. Our community needs leadership, and Council must rise to the occasion.
“We would like to express our deep gratitude to all those who have stepped forward to offer their support, experience, and knowledge to our city during this moment of crisis. It highlights our greatest asset — our city’s dedicated staff, public servants, and community members. It will require our collective wisdom and efforts to support our local government in the task of creating the just, resilient, and equitable community we can and will be.
Why Boyles? Why now?
So, who is Chip Boyles, and why him? After thanking John Blair for his service, Councilor Heather Hill read from her own statement.
“Mr. Boyles coming on board is a great gain for the organization and the community we collectively serve,” Hill said. “I want to thank him and his family for believing in us to make their own sacrifices as he joins in our quest to stabilize the organization to best serve the needs of all our citizens.”
Vice Mayor Sena Magill had her own welcome.
“I just want to say to welcome Chip,” Magill said. “Mr. Boyles, I look forward to working with you. I know you have Council’s 100 percent support behind you. We recognize we are in a very troubling environment and we are all behind working with you to strengthen our city.”
Councilor Lloyd Snook went next with these comments.
“It was important to me as we tried to move forward that we in fact move forward, that we not wallow in or be submerged by the past,” Snook said. “And that we look forward to new leadership, to new experience that Chip brings to us that can be of great assistance to us. I’ve said before that in many ways that the events of August 2017 are like a bell that keeps ringing. It hasn’t stopped ringing in Charlottesville. And what we’re seeing nationally just reinforces that.”
The offices of the Thomas Jefferson District Commission are on 4th Street in downtown Charlottesville, right at the site where Heather Heyer was killed and many more were injured by a Unite the Right rallyist.
Before Boyles spoke, Mayor Walker gave her thoughts.
“This was a challenging process over the past few days, weeks, contemplating whether this was something you would want to do at this time in your life and I appreciate the opportunity as Councilor Snook said to be able to hopefully, truly move forward and start stabilizing, balancing the organization but also acknowledge the reason why we’re doing that,” Walker said. “We need a stable organization so that we can meet the needs of our citizens. And as we keep bringing up, and Charlottesville has been brought up a lot since the terrorist attacks in D.C., I think we don’t even understand how we will never be able to shift from that until we actually put some things in place and heal.”
“I’m very appreciative that you and the City Council are entrusting me with this important responsibility and the importance of it at this particular time,” Boyles said. “When leadership and solidarity is so needed in Charlottesville but as Councilor Hill stated is needed all across our entire nation, I look forward to working with all of the city staff. I especially look forward to working with all of the Charlottesville community. It’s very, very important for me. I’m a people person and that’s where I look to spend a lot of time.”
“I know there are a number of citizens that were looking for a different direction as a city manager but I am trusting the City Council and your commitment to the city to leave all of Charlottesville to a much brighter future,” he continued. “I hope that over time I will build the support of all the community, for all of us to work together to a more unified community and Charlottesville.”
Boyles will start work on February 15. He will be replaced at TJPDC on an interim basis by Christina Jacobs, the assistant director. The TJPDC Board of Commissioners will meet on February 4.
Questions from the press
The first question from the press came from Riley Wyant of NBC29.
“This step of getting Chip in here as City Manager is obviously a big one for rebuilding but what else is top of mind for you guys?” Wyant asked. “I know there are a couple of other staffing issues. What needs to be done moving forward?”
City Councilor Michael Payne answered first.
“I think it’s really going to require working directly with the city manager’s office in order to build a leadership team, fill those vacancies and fill them to create a mission-driven team that as Mayor Walker said is focused on bringing stability but bringing stability with a goal in mind, and that goal of executing the policy priorities that we ran on and care about for the community,” Payne said. “Likewise, Council is going to need to work with the city manager’s office to create processes to have clear communication among ourselves, develop a strategic plan, to more clearly communicate our policy priorities with the city manager’s office and city staff and have those procedures and collaborative work really guide the process of filling vacancies and bringing stability.”
In a follow-up question, Wyant asked Councilors why they chose Boyles. Mayor Walker went first and cited her experience working with the new city manager in his capacity at TJPDC. The RTP she mentions is the Regional Transit Partnership, an initiative Boyles launched to bring area transit providers together.
“The two capacities that I have been able to witness how Chip operates have been with the PDC when I stepped in when former Councilor [Mike] Signer… had family constraints during that late evening meeting time and then with the RTP. My thoughts here was just that we had wanted someone who was neutral. Chip has been in the community for a number of years but he hasn’t been in the organization, and it will provide us an opportunity to just look at any issues that were brought up through a neutral lens, and I thought that was very important. But in witnessing him within those two capacities I was able to see someone who was an excellent communicator and who was very thorough in the information that the Board members would receive from them. And I’m hoping that those skills along with being able to being a new and fresh perspective to the organization will allow us to heal and actually be able to get some of the work that we have all promised to do done.”
Councilor Snook said he thought Boyles could remind city government of the roles everyone is supposed to be playing.
“I was impressed first of all that he would bring and does bring to the position prior experience as a city manager,” Snook said. “I think that is important for all of us that he understands the role, and that he helps us understand the role that we have in the city manager form of government.”
Snook also called Boyles a consensus-builder who knows the city of Charlottesville.
“He’s lived here for seven years,” Snook said. “He’s had a chance to observe our government in action. He knows exactly what he is getting into, let me put it that way. All of those things are important characteristics. “
The next question came from Nolan Stout of the Daily Progress.
“So Chip, my first question would be that you were for the last seven years at a regional capacity,” Stout said. “How are you going to change to this instead of looking of regionally because the city needs to focus internally, how are you going to change your mission with that?”
“Well, sure,” Boyles responded. “Prior to my seven years it’s been predominantly at local government levels. Most recently it was stated in the city of East Baton Rouge, which is quite a bit larger with a number of its own challenges that we had to focus with. I was also there during a transition period for their Council, which is actually a mayor and 12 council members.”
“The focus is to think back and to work back to my experience as a City Manager,” Boyles said. “But I don’t want to lose focus either on the regional important because as Charlottesville goes, so goes our region as well. So it will not be a complete change but more of a different and a way to focus towards the city of Charlottesville but keeping the region in mind as well.”
Stout then asked Council a question.
“How difficult was it going through these closed sessions and the process to get to this decision?” Stout asked.
Vice Mayor Magill answered first.
“I wouldn’t characterize them as difficult,” Magill said. “I would characterize them as thorough. We have been working to evaluate the needs of the city and bringing forward the best match for the city at this time and we wanted to make sure we spent time in evaluating and doing the most thorough job we could and I feel that we’ve done that and we’ve come out with a good result that I think we are all very happy with and truly believe this is a good way forward for our city and our future.”
Councilor Michael Payne said it has been an “extremely diffcult and challenging time for the city” at the same time there is a global pandemic. But he said the hiring of Boyles paves the way for opportunities.
“Along with all the challenges which are very real come enormous opportunities,” Payne said. “I think that we all feel confident going forward to be able to take a hold of those opportunities and get to a better place as a city and get to a better place to take action on policies to take care and support our community.”
I asked about Boyles to comment on the ongoing Cville Plans Together initiative, which aims to complete the Comprehensive Plan, create an affordable housing strategy, and update the zoning code. The Comprehensive Plan is a state-mandated document that is to be reviewed every five years. Council last adopted a plan in 2013, and the current review has been going on for four years. During that time, the city demoted its director of neighborhood development services, sometime during Dr. Richardson’s tenure. I asked Boyles for a general comment on these issues.
“Well, I’ll start with saying that I trust the staff at NDS,” Boyles said. “They’ve gotten us to this point with the Comprehensive Plan. I do believe coming in from the PDC, I fully understand not just the importance of the Comprehensive Plan but the timelineness of the Comp Plan. I do believe I will put a little bit more priority in not just that planning efforts but a number of the other planning efforts around affordable housing and others, knowing again how important than it is. And then of course weighing it with all of the other challenges and opportunities that we have but we’ll stay focused on things that are near and dear, like planning.”
Interim or permanent?
In my follow-up, I wanted to get to something I thought was important. Earlier, one of the Councilors said something about the search for city manager being opened again at some point in the future. I asked if we should consider Boyles an interim city manager. Councilor Hill responded.
“At this time, Council as reflected in the announcement, Mr. Boyles will be our City Manager and that’s what he should be referred to and we are certainly empowering him with all of the duties of a city manager,” Hill said.
Mayor Walker also wanted to respond about the process.
“This isn’t a process that any of us would have preferred,” Walker said. “I enjoy the open, the panel discussion, hearing feedback from citizens once they are introduced to the finalists and being able to weigh in. And it’s important for us to understand the culture that has been created by some of us internally, publicly, had us in closed session attempting to make this decision the best we knew how. So over the coming months, years, just as we reflect on how to make sure that we don’t end up in a position like this again, we’ll all have to look internally to see how we move forward together differently. I know we’re going to get this question a lot which is why I paused to comment because no one is going to be happy with the fact that five elected officials made a decision that is usually a very robust and thorough process by themselves. So we acknowledge that. We understand that those questions are going to come and we’re going to have to have a lot of conversations because of the way that this decision was made.”
On to the next question from Charlotte Woods of Charlottesville Tomorrow who asked Boyles what his priorities would be.
“The very first priorities which the Council have already stated and laid out are filling the positions that we need in the leadership capacity,” Boyles said. “There are quite a number of those.”
All of the people who were serving as Deputy City Managers under Dr. Richardson will have left by the time he takes office. This gives Boyles a blank slate to proceed.
“We’ve got a very big bus here,” Boyles said. “We have to get the right people on the bus and then the right people in the right seats. It’s crucial we do that. That will then set the stage for how we will be able to move the rest of the city forward.”
A future search?
Later on in the press conference, Brielle Entzminger of C-Ville Weekly returned to the question of an eventual reopening of the search.
“Is there a specific reason why you all are anticipating possibly starting the new city manager search in 2022?” Entzminger asked. “Is there a reason for that time length?”
“That is just to make sure that as the Mayor has stated that we do honor the process correctly,” said Vice Mayor Magill. “We also know at this time we don’t feel that… we can not have another interim manager. We have too many vacancies. We need to empower someone to be a true city manager. We are incredibly lucky that Mr. Boyles is here. And when we do a more formalized search, he will be welcome to apply for that should he so chooses.”
City Council hires the city manager, and that hiring is subject to a contract. Mayor Walker said Boyles understood what the terms would be before agreeing to take the job.
“When you all take a look at the contract, you will see that Mr. Boyles… is leaving a very secure position and he didn’t ask him for anything out of the ordinary,” Walker said. “He was extremely generous through the negotiation process and I hope you will be able to see that when you view the contract.”
Then we got to a second round of questions from reporters. Here’s Nolan Stout with the Daily Progress.
“How does having Chip selected knowing that there is going to possibly be a vacancy in 2022, how does that help recruitment when there’s a possibility that leadership might be different two years?” Stout asked.
“I don’t think that anyone looking at this and understanding that this is not the traditional process and we don’t want to set a precedent in Charlottesville that anyone that Mr. Boyles will be attempting to recruit who will take a look and research our community thoroughly will have a problem with us acknowledging to our citizens who elected us that we will go through this process,” Walker said.
City Councils role?
Stout asked a follow-up.
“The Council statement mentioned a lot about its role in leading to where the city is now,” Stout said. “I wanted to know what specifically you guys are planning to do to address your role and change things moving forward.”
“There are definitely some conversations that we need to have about what the next 11 months and sixteen days look like,” Walker said. “We just need time to do that. It is clear from your reporting during your tenure here and others that we have been a in a constant state of crisis. Relationships are not healthy and they are not very conducive to a very successful environment. I would hope that as we look and go through that process of introspection that I was talking about earlier, that not only we need to do but staff needs to do, and the community members need to do, that we come up with those answers and are honest in our conversations about what needs to be done and that we have a willingness to participate in it. As we’ve seen over the past few years, if this kind of discord occurs it doesn’t go away. It’s just the fanning of the flames. And so we all have to figure out how to do this differently and be open to it.”
“And I think it’s going to take Council taking collective responsibility,” Payne said. “Each of us individually and together as a team. We can’t put the blame on any one thing or any one individual. This is all of us. We’re all together in this team and we have to collectively take full ownership of it together. It’s going to be necessary for us to acknowledge that and have those honest conversations and I think we will work directly with Mr. Boyles to just lay out better communication, lay out clearer expectations.”
Payne said this might include procedures on how Councilors interact.
“Just sort of guardrails for how we do our business day to day and how we communicate with each other and how we communicate with the city manager’s office and staff,” Payne said.
Later in the press conference, Payne reminded the audience that all City Managers are subject to contract, and none are ever permanent.
“Every city manager enters into an environment of some uncertainty,” Payne said.
In the short-term, Boyles will be responsible for putting together a budget for Fiscal Year 2022, which begins on July 1. Council faces continued revenue shortfalls due to the pandemic, and is also approaching its debt capacity. I asked Boyles if he’s being paying attention and if he’ll have a recommended budget in place by late February. He begins work on February 15.
“I’ve certainly been paying attention and I’m starting paying more attention,” Boyles said. “I cannot say that I have any particular direction at this time. This has been a very quick process. I start work on February 15. A great deal of the work will already be in place. In discussions with my existing Board and with the Mayor and City Council, the transition period unlike other places I think will go very, very positive and I will begin to work and be acclimated and begin to get my feet wet in the city business immediately. So hopefully that will help, but much of the budget preparation and delivery will be done.”