Gary O’Connell Leaving the City for ACSA

City Manager Gary O’Connell is leaving to run the Albemarle County Service Authority, Hawes Spencer writes for The Hook. The most powerful man in city government, O’Connell will remain in his position through April before leaving, after nearly fifteen years on the job (and fourteen before that as assistant city manager). As Spencer explains, his new position will strike some as ironic, given that his work on the water supply plan as city manager has not been universally lauded, to put it gently. Because Charlottesville has a “strong city manager” form of government—which is to say that the city is run by a professional, rather than an elected mayor—the process by which the new city manager is hired is going to be an important one, the effects of which will be much more important than who the mayor is.

17 thoughts on “Gary O’Connell Leaving the City for ACSA”

  1. Typically, top level contract employees approaching retirement have a terrific motive to switch employers in a sideways move.

    They are already fully qualified for the ample retirement income of the old job, and after n months in the new job will be qualified for that retirement income also.

    Given the top level nature of these two jobs, it should not surprise us to learn he might earn $75k a year in City Manager retirement and another $50k a year in Service Authority retirement.

    Completely legitimate, totally legal, but it tends to tee-off people whose joy in life is lambasting public employees.

  2. I think the City should take their time and involve the community in this decision. May be time to consider a whole new set up, as Waldo alludes to, -possibly an elected mayor. But above all else, the #1 city deserves a national search and the best qualified candidate we can find. O’Connell could manage as long as the City was awash in money, but times have changed, and we need someone with a much more sustainable vision and tough negotiating skills to stand up to the county, now in the process of trying to run over us and take our assets. I always heard O’Connell was weak when it came to inside deals with the county and we can’t afford that now.

  3. We should not forget that “involving the community in the decision” means crushing pressure to hire by race and gender.

    Especially ignored is Dr. King’s admonishment not to be judged by the color of one’s skin. In this community black skin becomes a de facto qualification, and for some citizens the most important qualification.

    Charlottesville’s record of community involvement filling professional positions sucks.

  4. Running cities are extrememly complicated. We don’t need an elected politician who probably knows no more than how to sell baked goods at the City Market to take over a $140_M budget and 900 employees. Let’s do a multi-state search. At the payscale, we can find some great candidates who have proven themselves on the job and not kissed a bunch of babies and showed up for the right protest march. Quite frankly, the people that we elect do notdo a great job at managing city money. Remember that $625k “bonus” O’Connell got Council to approve last November? Not a good way to manage city funds, espeically wehen you have no clue how much federal and state money that will be coming in the next year. Politicians buy votes; city managers should have better feduciary sense. That’s why they go to college.

  5. You have some good points, but I’d like to hear this discussed in more detail. One thing is for sure we do need a more competent hire this time around for city manager; someone who understands infrastructure and has strong deal making skills. And someone who can stand up to Gary and not get run over in the water plan cost share agreement, now that he’s fighting for the best deal for the county. It would be a mistake to hire someone who formerly worked for him and who he can manipulate. In this economic climate, at this pay scale, we should get a lot of excellent applicants.

  6. Cville Eye, I think you’re absolutely right about that—we can’t leave the operations of the city up to the mayor. I mean, I like Dave Norris—he’s a swell guy. But if he’s got any qualifications to be in charge of the day-to-day operations of an organization as big as the City of Charlottesville, I don’t know about them. :) Ditto for every mayor of the past twenty years. I’d love to see an elected mayor, but with the understanding that it’s a means for the voters to indicate who they think should be the agenda setter for Council, who they think best speaks for them, not to have somebody run the city.

    The strong city manager form of government is a really progressive, relatively recent concept of operating a municipal government. We wouldn’t be trying anything bold and new by moving to a strong mayor system—we’d be taking a big step back, establishing a system in which graft, back-scratching, and general corruption can thrive. Even if you (like me) think that our current mayor is a hell of a great guy, you’ve got to look ahead to the possibility of a mayor with whom you disagree sharply and do not trust. (That was the lesson on executive power: conservative talking heads thought that the idea of a “unitary executive”—read as monarch-like and all-powerful—was just great, until President Obama took office, and then they couldn’t backpedal fast enough.)

  7. I agree with you both, TJ and Waldo. I would imagine electing a Mayor (agenda-setter)would have to be an at-large election since he has to answer to everyone. I so, what would make him different from any other Councilor who is now also elected at-large? If she was elected last Novembewr, would she remain Mayor until her four years are up? Does she have to run every two instead of four years if she wants to be Mayor? We have Councilmanic elections every two years for the sake of continuity? Should we go to a ward system, precluding ward representative from being Mayor? These we questions that came up in the early eighties mainly for the purpose of preoviding representatives from different sections of town that felt under- or un-represeted.
    If these questions could be worked out, we would perhaps have a strong Mayor without going back to the strong mayoral form of government. Never let any of them get their hands on the checkbook or charge cards and we may do okay.
    As for hiring a new manager, citizens should start telling Council what they are looking for using “demonstrated ability,” such as “demonstrated ability to manage 800 to 1200 employees under a departmentalized structure” or “deomstrated ability to re-deploy rouseces without a loss of services.” Then Council can evaluate how well the candidate measured up to what the community wants. Then, some of them should take a trip to his hometown ad spend just one day talking to people on the street, looking around town, and examining the infrastructure.

  8. Charley Olnutt wrote: “Completely legitimate, totally legal, but it tends to tee-off people whose joy in life is lambasting public employees.”

    Actually, it tends to tee-off people whose joy in life is not bankrolling retirement swindles. That money doesn’t come floating down from the sky. It comes out of our pockets. And frankly, we can’t afford it.

    The man is totally entitled to his City retirement – he’s absolutely earned it. But work for a couple of years with the ACSA and pick up another 50k a year? Ludicrous.

    And IMHO the “most powerful person in city government” should be elected. That person needs to be accountable to the people. A full-time mayor could accomplish much. A part-time mayor accomplishes very little.

  9. And IMHO the “most powerful person in city government” should be elected. That person needs to be accountable to the people.

    I find that very appealing, conceptually, but I worry enormously about the results of it. (Actually, it reminds me of the recent SCOTUS ruling about free expression and corporations. I agree with the ruling in legal principle, but I think that the effect will be disastrous for the country.) I bet some studies have been conducted on the differences between strong city manager vs strong mayor forms of government—those results might be enlightening.

  10. And who does Big_Al think is going to give up his career to run for Mayor? A lawyer? Who else can afford to leave his career at 40, hoping that he’ll either win another election in four years or be able to get his job bakc. Maybe somebody that’s in business for himself or is retired. That certainly will limit the pool quite a bit, especially when a large number of business owners live in surrounding counties. That’s why Charlottesville got rid of the mayoral system in the first place. They pretty much new absolutely nothing about managing millions of dollars. If we have not elected a council that is acountable to the people (a longtime complaint among residents is that certain neighborhoods have been neglected for years)why would we suppose we can elect a mayor who will be?

  11. Let’s clarify some things here. The method of selecting the mayor is independent of the system of government. For example, the City of Chesapeake in the Hampton Roads area has direct election of their Mayor by the citizens. Nonetheless, they have a council-manager form of government. The differences in the form of governments come from who is the chief executive of the locality. In a council manager form, a professional manager, typically with an educational background in the field, is the chief executive and manages the day-to-day operation of the local government. In a strong mayor form (ala Richmond, New York, etc.) the elected mayor works full-time at managing the operations of the government. The strong mayor form of government is typically used in very large cities where political leadership is necessary to make significant changes to programs, or in very small localities where there isn’t really a need for a full-time manager.

    And it should be pointed out that while O’Connell was named the most powerful person by one of our weekly magazines, City Managers serve at the pleasure of the elected representatives. A Manager can be fired at a moment’s notice by a Council majority. See Waynesboro a couple years ago for an example.

  12. Under our current system I haven’t seen any graft, but quite a lot of back-scratching, and disinformation. Not on most issues, just the really important ones where a great deal of public money can be spent to fuel sprawl and enrich the board of the Free Enterprise Forum etc.

    Behind the shimmer of progressive values and apparent transparency, when it comes to roads and water there has been a great deal of deception from the city staff to protect the plan (in both issues to use city resources to subsidize county sprawl) from the public.

    Some recent events surrounding the parkway/interchange:

    Oct 7 – Staff evades Mayors questions about VDOT claiming to the Corps it would build an at-grade intersection (which Council forbade and VDOT certified it wouldn’t) if the interchange is not built. Check out my comments after:

    Nov 23 – Same city staff member writes to VDOT and tells them something which contradicts Councils clear public stance and is exactly the opposite of what she assured the Mayor (at the Oct 7 meeting) she would do:

    “If the City elects not to move forward with the interchange project, City Council will grant the necessary permission to complete the at-grade intersection”

    Jan 4 – Council votes to send letter to VDOT correcting the above and reaffirming its position that it had not voted to approve an at – grade parkway. I posted comments also at:

    The above goes to show that, under our current system, without the active oversight of elected officials who are accountable to the general public, we will not have honest government.

    Fortunately we do have a “Strong Mayor”(not institutionally but currently) and Councils unanimous Jan 4th vote to tell the truth is a very welcome step indeed.

    Unfortunately the whole parkway/interchange process is still based on the falsehood mentioned above.

    This can be corrected by the city insisting that the entire project be subjected to the federal environmental standards thus far evaded by the fiction that Charlottesville approved the at-grade (without an interchange) parkway.

    Until then, it is clearly not a process with legitimacy. Our local media has let us down by sitting on this.

    If you would like to keep our park and focus on walking biking and transit instead of building the county a driveway to induce more sprawl and traffic, please take a minute to email a simple note (No Parkway Yes Bikeway will do) to all the councilors at once at:

  13. @stratton salidis, We had a Mayor recently that applied to the BAR for a demolition permit for a structure on W. Main. What’s wrong with that? He appoints the BAR. Unfortunately we had a weak City Manager and City Attorney that allowed him to do it. He got a partial demolition permit.

  14. I don’t see anything wrong with your example. The Charlottesville Mayor does not give up his/her rights as a private citizen when elected. One of those rights is to petition the government – in your case to ask the BAR for permission to demolish a historic structure. The BAR has to make the decision based on their guidelines. If their decision was supported by those guidelines, then the system worked.

    Now, if the BAR made an arbitrary and capricious decision (a decision where no good reason was given) then the BAR decision could be successfully challenged in court.

    Your implication seems to be that the Mayor (one person among the five that appoint BAR members) holds some sort of power over the 9 BAR members. The only power I can think of is to block a person from being re-appointed to the BAR (which would need the support of 2 other Councilors). Keep in mind, it’s not like all of Charlottesville is clamoring to be on the Board of Architectural Review and making those seats highly coveted.

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