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Updated: Charlottesville Leaders Hold Closed Meeting to Discuss Aug. 12 Events

Posted: Updated: Aug 24, 2017 05:13 PM
Councilor Kathy Glavin and Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy at a closed session meeting Councilor Kathy Glavin and Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy at a closed session meeting
Councilor Kristin Szakos at a closed session meeting Councilor Kristin Szakos at a closed session meeting
City Manger Maurice Jones at a closed session meeting City Manger Maurice Jones at a closed session meeting
Councilor Bob Fenwick entering a closed session meeting Councilor Bob Fenwick entering a closed session meeting
Mayor Mike Signer Mayor Mike Signer
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) -

Charlottesville City Council spent more than two hours behind closed doors Thursday hashing over what happened last weekend, and who should be held accountable for what went wrong.

Councilors began their closed session at City Hall around 10 a.m. Thursday, August 24. They discussed the events that occurred on Saturday, August 12, including white activist Jason Kessler's Unite the Right rally at Emancipation Park and the fatal car attack along 4th Street.

"We talked about what was going on this summer, both July 8th and August 12th and that is where we're leaving it," said councilor Kathy Galvin, referencing the earlier rally held by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan at Justice Park on July 8.

Mayor Mike Signer said City Council is trying to answer some hard questions that were brought to them during the overrun their public meeting on Monday, August 21.

"We definitely have to empathize and understand why people are so passionate and upset by how things transpired. We have to acknowledge that. We have to provide people with the opportunity to express themselves," said Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy after Thursday's meeting.

The private meeting also cast a shadow over the employment status of both the Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas and City Manager Maurice Jones. Signer posted a lengthy statement on his Facebook page before the meeting, which appeared at times to place blame on Thomas and Jones:

On Monday, we saw a public crying out for answers. In our City Manager form of government—a system that goes back to the Progressive era, and which every city and county in Virginia other than Richmond has—the Mayor and Council unfortunately cannot provide many of those answers. The Police Chief reports to the City Manager, who has total operational authority over operations like the ones on August 12. The Mayor and Council have no operational role.

Also included in Signer's statement is a claim that law enforcement intentionally kept him in the dark about police plans, and that Chief Thomas told the mayor to "stay out of my way":

During a briefing on the Thursday before August 12 with the Police Chief, the Fire Chief, and the City Manager, when I asked the Police Chief what I could do to be helpful during that day as Mayor, he answered, “Stay out of my way.” Despite repeated requests, I was not allowed into the City’s Command Center (run by City staff) and was instead asked to be in the Emergency Operations Center (where fire, rescue, and other stakeholders were monitoring the situation).

Signer and Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy later stressed to reporters that nobody was being fired Thursday. Some councilors said they were not prepared for the chaos that happened that Saturday, and that no single person is to blame.

"We're not looking to place blame, quote unquote, on anyone. I think it's important that Mayor Signer, myself, we all agree that there were some mistakes made and there's room for improvement on all fronts," Bellamy said.

Bellamy and Galvin both said "we're sorry," and that City Council needs to be held accountable for mistakes made that Saturday.

The mayor's Facebook post appeared to have caught members of City Council by surprise.

Signer offered no comment on his statement, but said, "I think we've all spoken in our own ways about our concerns, about what we want to have happen moving forward, so the most important thing going forward is that we, council, speaks with one voice, that we act collectively."

Councilors and those inside City Hall are wondering when that will actually happen based off the latest social media post from the mayor.

In his Facebook post, Signer also said there are serious questions about the city's handling of security, communications and governance.

City Manager Jones has appointed a community task force to review of all that happened in Charlottesville on August 12. The review is expected to up to three months.

The task force will run a town hall at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Performing Arts center at Charlottesville High School from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, August 27.

Statement from Mayor Mike Signer on Closed Session Regarding Personnel Matters on 8/24/17:

Our traumatized community is mourning, grieving, and grappling for a way forward after the terrorist attack on August 12. Councilors are no exception. When I temporarily left the City Council meeting on August 21, I needed to talk and meet with and reassure my very worried wife, which I felt I had no option but to do. Those difficult and necessary conversations are happening all over the city, each in their own way.

While there is a huge amount of emotion in our town—as evident during our meeting on August 21—healing is also beginning. This catharsis is part of that process. We were invaded by evil, and how we respond to evil is a great test of our character. My fear is that this evil will pull us down with it. My hope is that as that horrible day begins to recede in our memory, the evil that came here will be met with the best of our collective character. That rage will subside in favor of redemption. That love will conquer fear.

Part of progress will be truth, and accountability. On Monday, we saw a public crying out for answers. In our City Manager form of government—a system that goes back to the Progressive era, and which every city and county in Virginia other than Richmond has—the Mayor and Council unfortunately cannot provide many of those answers. The Police Chief reports to the City Manager, who has total operational authority over operations like the ones on August 12. The Mayor and Council have no operational role.

In this form of government, Council is responsible for hiring and firing the City manager, for making policy (such as resolutions and ordinances), for passing the City’s budget, for being a conduit to public concerns, for service on various committees, councils, and commissions, for their own ad hoc or special projects, and for being ambassadors for the City.

In many senses, we are a combination of the legislative and judicial branches of government. What we are not, however, is the executive branch of government.

A few facts regarding the role of elected officials in a city manager form of government during an event like August 12 would probably surprise anyone learning for the first time about this form of government.

For instance, we were not given the security plan for August 12. During a briefing on the Thursday before August 12 with the Police Chief, the Fire Chief, and the City Manager, when I asked the Police Chief what I could do to be helpful during that day as Mayor, he answered, “Stay out of my way.” Despite repeated requests, I was not allowed into the City’s Command Center (run by City staff) and was instead asked to be in the Emergency Operations Center (where fire, rescue, and other stakeholders were monitoring the situation).

This is more reason why the conspiracy theory circulating among the fake news and alt-right networks that I somehow ordered a “stand down” among the police is even more crazy than it seems. I simply don’t have that legal authority. I couldn’t order a “stand down” if I wanted to.

Given those constraints, I spent the bulk of my time leading up to August 12 on the hard work of trying to move the event to a different location.

Understanding from our staff and other experts that the state of our law regarding these events meant that any attempt to cancel the rally would certainly have been shut down in court, I spent dozens of hours conferring with lawyers, law professors, staff, other mayors, security professionals, and other experts to develop another option.

That option was to move the event to a more spacious location where there could have been substantial “green field” between the protesters and counter protesters. After reviewing all locations in the City with the City Manager, the best option was McIntire Park. In the weeks leading up to August 12, I advocated for McIntire Park, including extensive discussions with my colleagues and staff. I successfully led the drive to hire an outside law firm to advise the City Manager and Police Chief on how such a plan could be developed on the strongest legal grounds.

Despite these efforts, the state of First Amendment law regarding these events is badly antiquated. We saw what happened. After the City Manager and Police Chief announced their decision that the rally would be relocated to a safer location—relying principally on the advice from our attorneys that the size of the event was the most “content-neutral” grounds for moving it—Jason Kessler immediately stated he would not respect the decision: that he would still head with his people to Emancipation Park. We were then sued by the Virginia ACLU and the Rutherford Institute. And a federal judge ruled against our decision on Friday night, just as we had feared.

During that week, City Council was under firm instructions not to speak about the rally at all, except to refer to its size.

For a public looking for condemnation of groups like the KKK and Nazis, this was very frustrating. It was frustrating for me, too. But if we had spoken out against the content of the speech that was coming to Charlottesville—against its bigotry and hatred—it would have made it even more likely that a judge would have found the removal decision to be “content-based.”

So we were muzzled. And it didn’t even make a difference, because in the tragic decision issued at 9:30 on Friday night, the federal judge still cited prior statements I had made about the bigotry and hate coming to our loving town. Our public statements of our feelings about this evil were held against us.

I hope this has explained some of what City Council can and cannot do. Where City Council does have a role, though, is in accountability. The City Manager works at our pleasure, and he is responsible for the staff under his command, in our form of government.

That is why we have called for an independent review of all decisions related not only to August 12, but the July 8 KKK rally and the prior torch-lit rally at Emancipation Park. This review will also include recommendations of reforms and new policies going forward. This process will require care and diligence, and will take skilled professionals 2-3 months. I expect the review to be announced shortly.

It is also why we have retained the skilled professionals of the federal government's Community Relations Service, which works with communities dealing with racial and ethnic strife and civil disorder. Under their guidance, the City Manager has appointed a community task force who will begin the process of a vision and plan for our community going forward. And their skilled mediators will run the town hall now scheduled for 3-5 p.m. this coming Sunday at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Performing Arts Center at Charlottesville High School.

And this is why City Council deemed it necessary to hold an emergency closed session today with the City Manager to discuss personnel matters. The events on August 12 have raised serious questions about the City’s handling of security, communications, and governance. These are questions Council can and should ask as the ultimate authority over the City Manager in our form of government, and we are starting that process today.

I understand the public is impatient. But we must undertake this process with utmost care, and we must do it in accordance with our procedures. We will get this right, we will do it together as a governing body—and we will move forward as a City.

Thank you.