RICHMOND — Charlottesville invested $250,000 to help Maurice Jones move to the city and obtain a master’s degree after it selected him to be city manager in 2010.
As Jones prepares to become the manager of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, following his ouster in May — the latest in a series of departures from the city government — more than $80,000 that the city lent him is being forgiven.
Jones had paid back about $32,000 of a $113,000 loan to help finance a down payment on a new house in Charlottesville and pay the mortgage on a home in Albemarle County he was having trouble selling after he was appointed city manager in December 2010.
On Monday, Mayor Nikuyah Walker announced that under the terms of his contract, Jones won’t be required to pay back the remaining $80,667. The contract wipes out Jones’ debt because his removal from the city was not for a specified cause.
Jones is the most recent high-level city official to leave his job following the Unite the Right rally last August. It began with white supremacists fighting openly downtown with counter-protesters as authorities watched and ended with one death and more injured after a car sped into a crowd of the counter-protesters.
Since then, the police chief, city attorney and director of communications all resigned or retired.
Robert Blair, an expert in public administration from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said he had never seen a locality provide its leaders loans to assist with buying a house or paying off a mortgage. Blair has worked with local governments and the International City County Management Association throughout his career.
“It may be a practice in some states, but in my years of studying city management, I have not heard of such a provision in an employment agreement,” Blair said.
Officials with the Virginia Municipal League and Virginia Association of Counties said they were unable to answer questions about the contract.
Councilor Heather Hill said she would still be willing to consider special benefits to retain a skilled executive for the city manager position.
“While some of these decisions preceded me, when I consider investments, some pay off and others do not,” Hill, who was elected in November, said about Jones and the benefits he received. “What is important is to accept when an investment is not providing the expected returns and invest elsewhere.”
Some observers in Charlottesville questioned Jones’ qualifications when he was first appointed to the position, citing his lack of professional management experience prior to becoming the assistant city manager in 2008. Jones previously worked as a broadcast journalist, a communications director for the city and a staffer at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.
Kristin Szakos, a member of the council that appointed Jones, said that she and other community members who reviewed the candidates for city manager then felt Jones was the best fit for the job.
“He didn’t have the same degrees as some candidates, but degrees don’t necessarily make you a better manager,” she said.
“It was a concern that he should have a degree, though, so that’s why we decided to pay for him to get his master’s.”
Szakos said she thinks that the city will “lose out” on part of its investment, but demurred when asked if she disagreed with the council’s decision to not renew his contract.
“As a former councilor, I don’t think they need me second-guessing their decisions,” she said. “I don’t think those investments were wasted. Now that [Jones] is going somewhere else, he’ll be a good manager there.”
Jones received $137,000 in tuition reimbursement for an MBA program at the Darden School of Business at UVa, according to financial records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. In addition, Walker said the agreement gives Jones six more months of pay and compensation for accrued vacation time as of July 31.
City officials said Jones will receive a $115,000 lump-sum payout. His salary for the fiscal year that started on July 1 was $197,000.
City officials have been mum on the details of why they decided to not extend Jones’ contract, but signs of a strained relationship between Jones and elected leaders surfaced on occasion, such as after the deadly rally last year.
Jones clashed with the mayor after a memo leaked that revealed the City Council laid blame on him and other city officials after the rally.
Jones later rebutted the council’s assertions and revealed that former Mayor Mike Signer threatened to fire both him and former Police Chief Al Thomas during “the height of the crisis” because the two officials barred the mayor from entering a command center.
Walker said publicly last month that the next city manager should treat “the council-management relationship as a team.”
Other elected officials in recent weeks said there were frustrations with how Jones was managing City Hall and holding staff accountable to the public.
The council voted last month to offer the job to a new candidate, but he backed out after Walker said on Twitter that the public “might have to protest” the decision. An assistant city manager is in charge while the city’s search continues.
Jones declined multiple interview requests before his final day with the city. When asked last month in person outside his office about the multiple requests he had not responded to, he declined an interview, saying he wanted to focus exclusively on “the future.”
Jones drew fire early in his tenure as city manager because he didn’t live inside the city limits, a common requirement for such a position.
Living in neighboring Albemarle at the time, Jones said the weak housing market was making it difficult for him to complete the move. The value of his home had plummeted by about $80,000 in five years.
The council amended his contract to allow him more time to move. An agreement with Jones allowed him up to $90,000 in a down payment on a new home in Charlottesville. It also allowed for a no-interest loan to help pay the mortgage on the Albemarle home he was selling.
According to property records, Jones bought his previous home in Albemarle for $393,276 in 2006 and sold it for $342,000 in 2014.
The home Jones bought with assistance from the city has doubled in value, another potential financial windfall for Jones as he prepares to leave town. Jones bought the house in the city’s Greenbrier neighborhood for $243,000 in 2012. City tax records value it at $547,700 now.
It appears that Jones was readying himself for the council’s decision before the announcement was made. Applications for the job in Chapel Hill were only accepted through mid-April, town officials confirmed, a month before Charlottesville decided to part ways with Jones.
If he'd accepted the job in North Carolina before the City Council decided to remove him, Jones would still be on the hook for the $80,000 loan balance.
According to the terms of his new contract, Jones begins work Aug. 20 and must establish residency in Chapel Hill within six months. It will pay up to $15,000 for moving expenses and $6,000 for “short-term living expenses” during his first six months on the job. But the town won’t be signing a loan for a down payment on his new house.