Five of the candidates vying for three seats on the Charlottesville City Council squared off Tuesday for the first time since April, in a forum that focused on meeting conduct and cooperation.
The candidates met in front of about 40 people at Greenbrier Elementary School at an event hosted by the Greenbrier Neighborhood Association.
Democrats Lloyd Snook, Michael Payne and Sena Magill and independents Bellamy Brown, Paul Long and John Hall will face off in the November election. Each is seeking a four-year term.
Hall was absent from Tuesday’s forum.
The unaffiliated candidates are trying to follow the path of Mayor Nikuyah Walker and break a Democratic stranglehold on local politics. Walker, elected in 2017, was the first independent candidate to win a seat in more than 70 years and no Republicans have been on City Council since Rob Schilling in 2006.
Moderator Ned Michie, who is part of the neighborhood association and a member of the Charlottesville School Board, asked candidates about cooperation between councilors, who have at times butted heads and attacked each other.
Brown, who has called City Council conduct “shameful,” acknowledged, without specifics or name, an attack from Walker on Facebook.
Last week, Walker wrote a lengthy Facebook post that critiqued Brown after he was featured in a C-Ville Weekly article. She later took it down and posted an apology.
Brown commented on the apology post, thanking Walker and saying he looked forward to working with her. Walker then went on the offensive.
“You’re some of the worst kind of toxic shit, but I just should have kept my comments to myself,” Walker wrote. “I’m not apologizing to you. I’m apologizing for the votes I helped you secure.”
At the forum, Brown said he’s still committed to working with his potential colleagues.
“It is what it is to me,” he said. “If I can work with the other three members of the council then that’s what I’m going to do.”
Payne, Magill and Long avoided any mention of dysfunction with the current panel, but focused on the importance of collaboration.
Snook said he was shocked to read about council’s December 2018 retreat in which councilors spent an all-day session airing dirty laundry. He said elected officials need to respect each other.
“You have to believe that the other people there are at least there out of their own perception of what is best for the city,” he said.
The Democratic candidates emphasized that they are already working together during the campaign and will take that cooperation to the council.
Candidates discussed council meeting conduct and whether shouts or comments from the audience are appropriate outside of the public comment period.
Coincidentally, the discussion happened on the same night that the rapper Wale performed downtown. Over the summer, councilors were hit with personal attacks after declining to provide funding to bring the performer to August Unity Days events; Tuesday’s event occurred through a sponsorship with Starr Hill Presents.
Long criticized former Mayor Mike Signer’s 2017 meeting conduct and said councilors need to respect the public. He said criticism also comes with the job.
“If you’re in public life, if you’re in elected office, you have to see the anger from the citizens as part of the job,” Long said.
Snook said Walker has effectively policed meetings in the past few months and councilors need to have more availability to speak with the community.
Brown acknowledged that certain segments of the community haven’t been properly served in the past. However, he said, the government must do its job and should follow parliamentary procedures.
“There should be no reason why we have personal attacks or extraneous interruptions in that space and we need to balance the needs of that community with the role of government,” he said.
Payne advocated for the council to hold town hall meetings to engage in an open dialogue with the community. Magill backed the proposal and said the council needs to rebuild trust with the community.
“When you keep your word, people begin to trust you again,” she said.
All of the candidates supported funding the Police Civilian Review Board and two positions for it.
Bylaws for a permanent review board are under consideration by the council. The proposed bylaws call for a board that conducts independent investigations, reviews complaints and tracks data and trends of the Charlottesville Police Department.
The board would be able to review complaints against the department and include an executive director and auditor. Any disciplinary measures proposed by the CRB would be sent to the police chief and city manager, according to the proposal.
Snook referenced his criticism of early drafts of the bylaws for not conforming with state law. He said the most recent drafts fall in line with state regulations and said he supports them.
The candidates expressed similar views on efforts to tackle climate change, such as LED streetlights, electric buses and more energy-efficient public housing.
Long and the Democrats said statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson need to be removed.
Long said Lee and Jackson were “traitors against the United States government.”
“They engaged in an act of rebellion against the duly elected government of the United States,” he said.
The Democrats acknowledged that the city’s hands are tied until any appeals are heard by the state Supreme Court.
“Those statues are magnets for people we don’t want here,” Snook said. “When we are permitted to do so by law, we should remove them.”
Brown, the only African American candidate in the race, animatedly answered that fighting a legal battle over the statues and focusing on them allows more important issues to go to the wayside.
“This is superfluous for us,” he said. “We need those dollars to be going to preventing those kids from going into that [prison] pipeline.”
Michie asked about personal credit cards for councilors; candidates gave varying answers on how they should be used.
Mayor Walker and Councilors Signer, Wes Bellamy and Kathy Galvin have city-issued cards. Councilor Heather Hill had a card, but the account was closed in December. She had not used it during her tenure.
The Daily Progress has obtained statements for the cards between June 28, 2017, and June 27, 2019, and has published several studies on spending. In that time frame, councilors have spent $29,876.
In the first half of 2019, officials, including councilors,have charged more than $480,000 to city credit cards.
Magill said credit cards make sense for council expenditures, but that there should be a set budget for the year.
Long said councilors shouldn’t have cards and should only be reimbursed for appropriate expenses.
Snook said he doesn’t expect to have a credit card and that the clerk of council should book trips. He also wants more information on where spending falls within the budget.
Brown said the expenses need proper oversight.
Payne said some of the purchases could be made by an employee who can conduct more research into the best prices.
The candidates will next appear together briefly on Sunday at the Martha Jefferson Neighborhood Picnic and again at a forum Oct. 15.