Lack of transparency by Charlottesville city government has been a sore subject for months, with concerns intensifying around the time of last year’s July 8 and Aug. 12 rallies and peaking after an independent report found vast gaps in city leaders’ communication with each other as well as with the public.
Improved transparency has been one of new Mayor Nikuyah Walker’s stated goals.
Now we discover that the history of non-transparency has persisted, with the public only recently learning that former Police Chief Al Thomas, who was in charge during last summer’s protests, did not “retire” as we’d been told but rather left office under some sort of settlement that allows him to continue receiving a salary.
The news was broken by conservative blogger and radio host (and one-time city councilor) Rob Schilling.
Mr. Thomas had come in for a large share of criticism in the devastating Heaphy Report, which cited, among other issues, his department’s failure “to inform the public of the logistics” for the July 8 rally until the night before the event and its more comprehensive failure to adequately plan for, train for and respond to the violent Aug. 12 rally.
Shortly after that report — while continuing to dispute, through his attorney, some of the report’s criticisms — Mr. Thomas “retired.” Or so we were told.
Former City Manager Maurice Jones said last December that the chief volunteered to step down. He had served in the role for about 18 months, at a salary of $134,514.
Turns out, he is still on the payroll, and will be until July 15, 2019.
That doesn’t fit any normal definition of “retirement.”
Instead, City Attorney John Blair recently confirmed that the payment is part of a “settlement agreement,” with both parties having agreed that the terms would remain confidential.
Having the terms of a settlement remain confidential is one thing. Trying to prevent the public — and the taxpayers — from learning that there even was a settlement is far, far different. And this settlement is costing the taxpayers good money.
Meanwhile, at least two councilors even professed to have been kept in the dark themselves — a truly ironic display of non-transparency by the city.
“It’s embarrassing to be caught off guard,” said Vice Mayor Heather Hill, who took her seat in January of this year along with Ms. Walker.
Councilor Mike Signer said he was “outraged” to learn only recently that the ex-chief’s salary didn’t end with his departure.
Councilor Kathy Galvin said she knew of the settlement negotiations, but that the details were the work of former City Manager Maurice Jones. “The various terms of the agreement and negotiation — that was between Mr. Jones and Mr. Thomas,” she said.
This might play into some councilors’ concerns over Charlottesville’s city manager form of government.
Mr. Jones himself left earlier this year after City Council had failed to renew his contract, with disagreement over the manager’s and the Council’s respective roles and powers apparently influencing councilors’ lack of confidence in his performance.
During and after last year’s Council election, changing Charlottesville’s management to a strong mayor form of government was debated. But the switch, even if it were deemed wise, might be time-consuming to accomplish, since it requires the state to alter the city’s charter.
Could a strong mayor be trusted to be transparent with the public, or even with fellow councilors?
There’s no way to ensure such openness. In fact, sometimes strong mayors can become petty despots.
But under what system — strong mayor or city manager — is it at all acceptable for councilors to remain uninformed of such an important decision? None that we can endorse.
Council is going to have to solve problems like these if it wants to restore, and sustain, the public’s trust in its wisdom and capabilities.