If civic affairs in Charlottesville can be likened to a game of chess, one of the most important pieces is the City Manager. Sam Sanders has been in the position for two months after a string of interim managers, those who didn’t make it a year, and one person who never even showed up.
“In July when Council identified me as the choice to serve as the next city manager, I made a few observations about Charlottesville that are important to restate tonight,” Sanders said at the October 2 meeting of City Council.
“Charlottesville is consistently punching above its weight class,” Sanders said. “That makes us exceptional when comparing efforts to cities three and ten times our size. I noted that we are striving to make a difference in the lives of all of our residents and I am emphasizing all. I acknowledge that we do have two life experiences in our city and we must continue to bridge that divide.”
Sanders said his decision to lift closing hours in Market Street Park on September 20 was not done under duress and that he consulted Charlottesville Police Chief Michael Kochis before making the move.
“I actually made the decision to protect our officers and the unhoused,” Sanders said. “I did not want to subject any of them to any additional interaction that could go terribly wrong. And I wanted to give our chief the opportunity to fully assess the situation which has now been done.”
For information on that, take a look at a story about a press conference Chief Kochis had last week. (read the story)
Sanders called the situation in Market Street Park “uncomfortable, untenable, and unsustaining” and understands many are disappointed. He’s received a lot of angry messages.
“I’ve been told to ‘tell people to get out of the park’, ‘give us our park back’, ‘I don’t care where they go’, and ‘you are focused on the wrong thing,’” Sanders said.
Sanders said it will take the whole community to solve the problem of homelessness.
“I understand that we have never had a comprehensive plan for addressing homelessness,” Sanders said. “I now commit to seeing that one gets built.”
Sanders said he’s heard frustration from staff about initiatives that were laid out but never implemented. He said he’s heard criticism from the unhoused about the various providers of support services.
“And while I don’t believe everything that I hear, I want to take those concerns to those individuals and I want to talk to about them and let’s figure out how to fix that and let’s how to focus on continuing to help the people who need them,” Sanders said.
City Councilor Michael Payne said he’s received many emails from people asking for Sanders to be disciplined for his action.
“And I want to say affirmatively, we are not going to do that,” Payne said.
After that, Sanders presented a work plan to guide what he’ll do between his hiring and the end of July 2024. He said it will be tied to the City Council’s strategic plan with frequent updates of metrics.
“Council adopted nine strategic outcome areas and a commitment to JEDI—Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion,” Sanders said.
The work plan lays out specific actions that will be taken in each of the ten areas. Under Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is an action item to “implement critical community-based interventions.”
“That’s Marcus Alert, alternative response team, opioid abatement,” Sanders said. “These are big things. We got information from the state that doesn’t tell us exactly how to do those things. We have to figure those things out.”
The plan also shows who will be responsible for each action item.
- The interim plan for the Marcus Alert system will be overseen by Deputy City Manager Ashley Marshall and the human services director.
- The alternative response team work will be overseen by Chief Kochis and the social services director.
- The opioid abatement plan will be worked on by Fire Chief Michael Thomas, the human rights director, and the director of the Police Civilian Review Board. (review the plan)
“When you the community take a look at it then ultimately I hope you will find that everything we’ve been talking about is there in some form or fashion,” Sanders said.
One item on the plan is the development of a homeless intervention strategy. Sanders said the phenomenon is the number one problem facing local governments across the United States.
“I’ve identified an internal work group and I’ve asked Ashley Marshall to lead that because I think it’s important for us to make sure that we can go where we need to go on that issue and that means we have to go deep,” Sanders said. “There’s a lot to be done.”
Sanders said the strategy will have short-term, medium-term, and long-term action items.
“And Market Street Park has consumed the conversation but it’s not really the short-term, it really isn’t,” Sanders said. “There are some real serious short-term things that need to be done. We need to identify who can actually operate a shelter. That’s number one.”
Sanders said night shelters are expensive to operate and the city needs to understand the various needs. One mid-term action is to identify a space.
“But I’m not running to do that at this moment because I don’t know how big that facility needs to be, and I don’t know if it’s one, two, or three facilities because in the population, there are differences amongst what the issues are and we need to address them,” Sanders said.
Sanders said Albemarle County will be the regional partner because he does not believe outlying counties will provide support. Already the two localities funded extension of the overnight shelter at the former Red Carpet Inn until it was time to move on with two new facilities on that site that will be run by Virginia Supportive Housing and the Piedmont Housing Alliance.
“There is no quick fix, there’s no simple answer, there’s no easy solution,” Sanders said. “It is going to be painful. The community has to appreciate that. It’s going to hurt to be able to deal with this, in more ways than one.”
Sanders concluded his remarks by stating that the closing time of Market Street Park will be restored in the future and the current situation is temporary. One task underway at the moment is to determine if PACEM can begin their season earlier than usual. Many steps will be needed to address the issue.
“And we’re trying to figure out what is the best way to do it with dignity and to make sure that the individuals land in a better place,” Sanders said. “That’s the point of any effort that we should undertake.”
Sanders had the support of the five Councilors who selected him to succeed interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers.
“No one wants to live outside,” said City Councilor Leah Puryear. “No one wants to sleep on a sidewalk. No one wants to be cold. And Mr. Sanders does not want that for anyone whether you’re on the property at Market Street or anywhere else.”
More from the City Council meeting in future editions of Charlottesville Community Engagement.
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