Five days after members of the Charlottesville City Council emphasized a need to enforce rules at meetings and support each other, three of them were the target of vicious personal attacks by members of the public.
One of the councilors said Wednesday that Mayor Nikuyah Walker isn’t doing enough to control the environment while a candidate for a seat on the panel compared the language used at Monday’s meeting to that surrounding the Aug. 12, 2017, white supremacist rally.
“We just had a retreat where we agreed to enforce our rules against disruption from the floor and profanity,” Councilor Mike Signer wrote in an email. “Only the mayor can enforce these rules, but she’s not, and this chaos is the result. Something has to change.”
Councilors Kathy Galvin, Heather Hill and Signer were targeted after they declined to allocate an additional $35,000 to bring the rapper Wale to a Unity Days event. Walker, who reiterated at the meeting and on Tuesday that she also didn’t support the request, was ignored during the tirades.
Tanesha Hudson asked the council for money to cover additional costs to have the Washington, D.C.-based artist perform at the Made in Charlottesville Concert, which is scheduled for Aug. 18. According to the Unity Days guidelines, funding only can go to vendors, not to individuals.
Councilors expressed concerns about the nature of the request, that it was an off-budget allocation and that no details of the expenditures were presented.
The councilors were met with a blanket accusation of white supremacy after the request was denied. Councilors were then targeted individually during the final public comment session.
One speaker called the three white councilors “Hitler’s best friends.” Signer is Jewish.
The confrontation came after a tense meeting filled with shouts from the audience and verbal confrontations during earlier business and public comment.
Two people who came to the meeting to ask the council to keep pools open later in the year left before their spot in public comment because of the atmosphere, according to other speakers.
John Hall, an independent candidate for the City Council, said in a voicemail that he was accosted by another audience member and called for that woman to be arrested. He said the city needs to restore “law and order” at its meetings.
On Wednesday, Galvin said personal attacks are a regular occurrence at meetings and aren’t conducive to government business.
“The atmosphere is one of complete breakdown of respect,” Galvin said. “Why that’s condoned or why that’s tolerated is a huge question for me personally. I do believe in the long run it’s going to hamper decision-making and it’s going to make it difficult for people to get their job done.”
Galvin said she is a “white woman of privilege.” She said that the events of 2017 and the city’s legacy of racism can fuel “righteous anger.”
“What happened in Charlottesville and the legacy of racism generates that righteous anger and outrage and we must respond to it,” she said. “But this was someone who didn’t get her way and it seemed really over the top, out of bounds and harmful.”
Hudson wrote on Facebook on Wednesday that she has been “working hard” for the community.
“Never knew being chaotic for change and equity was a bad thing,” she wrote. “If I have to stroke egos to get what I want I’m not doing it. I have several naysayers and that’s cool. Say whatever you want about me but you can never say I don’t work hard for my people. I personally don’t care who liked my [approach] at city council nothing about what I said was wrong it was ALL facts.”
Meeting conduct was a topic of the council’s July 31 retreat, as well as at a retreat in December.
At December’s all-day meeting, councilors also focused on their relationships with each other and the public. Councilors discussed how to help each other if they see a colleague being attacked. They mentioned signaling to others, but no process was ever determined.
Other councilors have taken issue with Walker on differing topics. In December, Galvin was upset about Walker posting critiques of Galvin on Facebook rather than speaking with her. Signer has been a frequent advocate for enforcing meeting rules.
Walker has consistently stood by her method of presiding over meetings. She says that underrepresented portions of the city need to feel they’re being heard.
In December, she said questions about conduct are racially motivated.
“Everything that we’re talking about, especially on council, we’re dealing with a white male perspective — what is considered to be civil, those kind of things,” she said at the time.
Bellamy Brown, another independent candidate for the council, compared the actions at Monday’s meeting to the tensions around the summer of 2017.
“I find it hard to see a difference between the statement above, and the statements made two years ago, in their effect,” he wrote in a Facebook post, referring to the Hitler comment. “I find both to be callous and disrespectful to members of our community who would not say otherwise.”
In a phone interview, Brown said that it’s out of line to invoke Nazism, especially against a Jewish councilor.
“We have members of our community who are of that faith and you can’t go around saying stuff like that if you’re trying to move us forward and get us in a positive direction,” he said.
Michael Payne, a Democratic candidate for the council, said the meeting was “very contentious and very emotional” but took issue with Brown’s comparison between the personal attacks and the white supremacist rallies.
“The ‘alt-right’ had a political mission rooted in violence and a political mission rooted in white supremacy and genocide,” he said.
Payne said the council needs to focus on the issues frustrating the community before meetings will calm down.
“The fundamental question is, why is there so much anger in the community that’s getting expressed in council meetings,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any one vote or action that would change this dynamic overnight.”
Paul Long, another independent council candidate, was at the earlier portion of the meeting. He said he likes the speakers who were present Monday night but condemns their language.
“I don’t approve of using that type of vocabulary when I disagree with local officials,” he said. “I think it’s unfortunate that it’s got to that point.”
He admitted to calling Signer a “neo-fascist” while campaigning for the council in 2017, but said he has changed his approach since Aug. 12.
Long said Walker’s approach to meetings is vastly different than was Signer’s when he was mayor. Signer was more strict with rules and would have speakers escorted from chambers.
“Whether it’s Nikuyah or someone else as mayor, I don’t know how you get a handle on that without acting like Mike Signer,” Long said.
Galvin said she sees no purpose in the personal attacks, saying they accomplish nothing.
“What’s the meaning of hurling destructive language to personally hurt councilors when the goal is to create a healthy community?” she said. “Ironically, this was all about promoting Unity Days. ... It was pointless. All it did was take a toll on three councilors. That’s a perplexing strategy, and it’s perplexing that the individuals thought they could do that.”
Charlottesville still has “very real challenges” and a long path forward, Brown said, but “personal attacks against others in our community won’t help us get there.”
“We can’t stay stuck in this cycle of divisiveness and negativity; it’s not sustainable, it’s not going to do anything,” he said.
Brown advocated for strict enforcement of parliamentary procedure but said to craft it to allow room for debate and disagreement.
Signer wrote that he has been “gratified by the outpouring of support, but something has to change.”
“I heard Mayor Walker talk about ‘getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,’” Signer wrote. “[T]his is not about civility. This is about having a government body follow its own rules and conduct meetings that kids can watch. It’s about an environment that’s become abusive.”
Wale could not be reached for comment about his participation in the concert. Walker, Hudson and council candidates Lloyd Snook and Sena Magill didn’t return requests for comment Wednesday. Hill declined to comment.