The mayor of Charlottesville will remain in his position for at least another four months, but his role will be diminished.
In a hastily prepared news conference that followed a three-hour meeting behind closed doors Wednesday, Mayor Mike Signer apologized to his fellow members of the Charlottesville City Council for his recent actions, including a lengthy Facebook post that “impugned the reputations” of City Manager Maurice Jones and police Chief Al Thomas.
“In the deeply troubling and traumatizing recent weeks,” Signer said, “I have taken several actions as mayor and made several communications that have been inconsistent with the collaboration required by our system of governance and that overstepped the bounds of my role as mayor, for which I apologize to my colleagues and the people of Charlottesville.
“Going forward, I am committed to working with my colleagues on City Council to putting the needs of the city and our community first. I am looking forward to working for consensus and to forge unity.”
The apology follows a series of closed-session meetings this month surrounding actions considered and taken by the council before and after a white nationalist rally in the city on Aug. 12.
As city residents and people throughout the nation have continued to mourn three people who died on the day of the rally — a female counter-protester who was rammed by a car and, in a separate incident, two police officers in a helicopter crash — the community’s elected officials have reeled from accusations that they were responsible for the tragedies.
Questions about Signer’s leadership came to attention after he called a closed-meeting last week. Moments before the meeting started, he issued a seemingly critical Facebook statement that mentioned Jones and Thomas, leading to speculation that the police chief and city manager were in danger of being fired.
A leaked memo about the meeting, which was written by Signer with the input of other councilors, alleged that the councilors were concerned by the lack of answers being provided by the city. Asserting a number of claims as facts, it seemed Jones was responsible for the delay in responses to the public and for allegedly failing to communicate and effectively plan for the rally in the weeks before it.
Jones responded to the memo on Saturday and alleged that the mayor had threatened to fire him on two separate occasions on Aug. 12. Signer’s statements, as well as Jones’s response to them, revealed that the mayor was barred from entering a police command center where Jones and Thomas were overseeing operations that day with other local and state officials.
Signer has said best practices for municipalities require that elected officials like him must observe police operations in such situations. In Charlottesville’s system of government, however, the mayor is elected every two years by the five-member City Council, and the city manager is in charge of all municipal operations.
On Wednesday, Councilor Kathy Galvin said Signer was not asked to resign. Instead, Signer will be surrendering some of his assumed autonomy and commit to “four protocols”:
» With the exception of meeting with Jones for regular “check-ins,” he will meet with senior city staff only when another councilor is present;
» Signer will “be more mindful of the time of the council clerk and assistant clerk;”
» He will work with council colleagues to “ensure that council meetings going forward reflect shared leadership; and
» he will not make public announcements as mayor without working with the other councilors and the city manager beforehand, ensuring their consent.
Signer was unanimously elected mayor in January 2016 at his first meeting as a city councilor and only a few weeks after being elected to office. The primary role of the mayor in the city’s system of governance is to preside over council meetings.
Immediately following Signer’s comments, Councilor Kristin Szakos read a statement on behalf of the council. She also announced that the city is launching a new website to share information “about a series of topics affecting our community.”
She said the new website will be a step toward uniting the community following the recent tragic events.
“We all faced a horrible tragedy in Charlottesville, a city we all love,” Szakos said. “We faced this challenge as a city, as leaders within it, and as individuals. We still face challenges. We acknowledge that people in our community continue to hurt and that we have a long road ahead to address the issue of equity.
“We have recommitted to one another to work as a leadership team — learning from the events of the day, discovering ways to have a more constructive community dialogue moving forward and, eventually, re-emerging as a stronger city.”
The councilors declined to answer questions at the end of the news conference.
Several people who came to City Hall on Wednesday to see what might unfold after the closed session said they are still skeptical of the city’s elected leaders.
Jalane Schmidt, a local leader for followers of the Black Lives Matter movement, said she believes Signer may have been the source of the leaked memo last week.
“… It’s not leadership,” she said. “He needs to specify what he did. … When my kids do things wrong and they’re supposed to apologize, I tell them they have to be specific — ‘What exactly are you sorry for? What did you do wrong?’ — That’s part of being responsible and turning a corner.”
Local resident Mason Pickett intimated that he thinks Signer may have harmed his reputation and political aspirations by attempting to shift responsibility toward other officials.
“I think he should be embarrassed,” Pickett said. “But I don’t think he did anything he should be expelled for — he didn’t get into the command center and make some crazy call.”