Mar 8 • 17M

March 8, 2022: Council directs staff to prepare plan for hybrid meetings; City leadership addresses business community at Chamber event

Plus: An update on the "strong downswing" in COVID cases

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Sean Tubbs
Regular updates of what's happening in local and regional government in and around Charlottesville, Virginia from an award-winning journalist with nearly thirty years of experience.
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There are 298 days left in the year, but let’s pause for a moment to mark International Women’s Day and the spirit in which it was founded over a hundred years ago.

This is Charlottesville Community Engagement, a newsletter and podcast created two years ago in the spirit of bringing information to as many people as possible. I’m your host Sean Tubbs, approaching my fourth decade as a reporter filled with a spirit of public service. 

On today’s program:
  • Charlottesville’s new leadership is introduced to local business leaders at the Chamber of Commerce’s State of the Community event

  • The city hires the Timmons Group to implement software to improve the development review process

  • Charlottesville City Council get an update on the pandemic, and directs staff to create a safety plan to guide the transition to in-person and hybrid meetings

Today’s first shout-out goes to a Livable Cville event

In today’s first subscriber supported shout-out, Livable Cville wants you to know about an online presentation coming up on Wednesday, March 16. "Can Zoning Create a More Affordable Charlottesville?" That’s the question to be explored by Dr. Jenny Schuetz of the Brookings Institute. She’s the author of Fixer-Upper: How to Repair America’s Broken Housing Systems. The event is free but you’ll have to register at EventBrite

Blue Ridge Health District director briefs Council on pandemic

The director of the Blue Ridge Health District told Council last night that the region is experiencing a “strong downswing” in the number of COVID cases. 

“So, overall a downward trend but we are still seeing spikes occasionally,” said Dr. Denise Bonds.  (view her presentation)

Today the seven-day average for new cases in Virginia is 1,177 and the percent positivity has declined to 5.9 percent. Since Dr. Bonds’ last appearance, the Centers for Disease Control have altered their guidance on the use of masks to slow the transmission of COVID. (CDC website)

“The CDC has lowered it down to three levels, low, medium, and high, and you can see in Virginia right now, most of northern Virginia and the Tidewater / Eastern Shore area is actually moved into the low area, with most of the Southwest tail in the high area.”

Charlottesville is also listed as high, so recommendations are to wear a mask indoors and stay updated on boosters, and to get tested if you have symptoms. 

“And I am really highly encouraging everyone If you have not gotten your booster to please do that,” Dr. Bonds said. “It’s really important to have that additional shot to have full immunity.” 

The community testing center at the Pantops Shopping Center will close on March 15, but Dr. Bonds said rapid tests can be picked up at the health department or at local pharmacies. The community vaccination center at Seminole Square Shopping Center will close on March 12. Visit the Blue Ridge Health District’s vaccine webpage to learn more about where you can get a shot or a booster.

Council directs staff to plan for return to in-person and hybrid meetings

Council discussed a potential return to in-person meetings at the end of last night’s meeting. Dr. Bonds said she would like to see a hybrid-option for people to participate. (staff report)

“Because it is still quite risky for some individuals who are immunocompromised, who can’t get vaccinated for whatever reason, or who have been vaccinated and are just not mounting a strong immune response, it’s really critical that those individuals still have they opportunity that they’ve had over the last two years with Zoom meetings to participate,” said Dr. Bonds. 

Dr. Bonds suggested that masks still be required for attendance, or to hold Council meetings in a larger space than the City Council Chambers. 

Council took about half an hour to discuss whether to extend a local ordinance to allow for the continuing operations of city government during the local declaration of emergency. That declaration expires on April 7 and Council will have to decide whether to renew. A continuity of government ordinance expires on March 18. 

“The reason it’s on your agenda tonight is because March 18 will happen before your second meeting in March,” said City Attorney Lisa Robertson. 

Robertson said staff wanted input on how to proceed with meetings. The continuity of government ordinance can still be in place even after the emergency declaration ends, allowing for electronic meetings to continue. One idea is for Council to convene and meet in person with people being able to view remotely. This would require creation of a safety plan and Robertson explained some of the questions that would need to be answered. 

“How that meeting would be managed in terms of COVID precautions, things like how many people would be in the room, would there be a mask requirement, how will compliance with the rules be monitored, what would the spacing be,” Robertson said. “All of those things that we haven’t really had the chance to nail down specifically.” 

Another issue is where boards and commissions would meet. Many of the meeting rooms in City Hall are too small to fit many people with spacing rules. That will also be factored into the safety plan. 

Interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers said staff is examining what it will take to make City Council Chambers work under the safety plan. 

“And there are some estimates that we are waiting to get back so I would say that probably in the next two weeks we should have the information that we need with respect to that,” Rogers said. 

Rogers said CitySpace is being considered as another place for meetings to occur as are school auditoriums. Another item under consideration is how Councilors could participate remotely. 

Council adopted the motion unanimously to extend the continuity of government with the addition of the need for a safety plan. 

“I would like to see us open as much as we reasonably can with reasonable safety, and this is going to sound utterly lawyerly, but with also reasonable safeguards available to people who have different medical needs.”

See also: Albemarle Supervisors briefed on eventual end of the local COVID emergency, March 4, 2022

Councilors address Russia’s war against Ukraine 

The invasion of Ukraine continues this week and City Councilors touched upon the crisis at their meeting last night. 

“I’ve had many constituents reach out to me to see what we could do, a statement or something,” said Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade. “I think what we can do is if you are the type to pray, please pray. I think we’re doing as a nation what we can at this point I know it’s an ongoing crisis.”

More than two million people have fled Ukraine to escape Russian bombardment according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 

Mayor Lloyd Snook said it is likely some of that number will come to this community in the near future.

“Charlottesville is a place where a lot of refugees come,” Snook said. “We’ve got the International Rescue Committee and a lot of other folks who know that Charlottesville is hospitable to refugees and immigrants and when the opportunity presents itself I know that Charlottesville and Charlottesvilians will be generous and welcoming.”

Visit the IRC website at rescue.org to learn more about how you can contribute. 

I’ll have more from this City Council meeting in a future Charlottesville Community Engagement

Second shout-out goes to Mulch Madness! 

In today’s second subscriber-supported shout-out, are you ready for Mulch Madness? The Rivanna Solid Waste Authority has a free mulch giveaway beginning tomorrow through April 16. In between all the big games, the RSWA wants you to get your yard ready for spring. If you have a way to transport mulch, head on over to the Ivy Material Utilization Center between 7:30am and 4:00pm, Monday through Saturday, where you can pick up up to two tons free. Rivanna staff are available to help load, but ask that you bring a covering. Mulch is double ground and derived from vegetative materials brought to Ivy for disposal. That’s Mulch Madness at the Ivy Material Utilization Center. Visit rivanna.org to learn more!

Chamber of Commerce explores the State of the Community: Charlottesville edition

On February 18, the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce held its first ever State of the Community event with speakers from Albemarle County, Charlottesville, and the University of Virginia. Elizabeth Cromwell is the president and chief executive officer of the Chamber. 

“These institutional anchors are responsible economic development decisions that affect all of us in our businesses,” Cromwell said.

Cromwell said the Chamber’s mission is to strengthen the business community, and the purpose of the event was to move forward on that pathway.

“Our goal is to engage our business stakeholders with the institutions that have crucial oversight and the ability to leverage opportunities for regional economic prosperity,” Cromwell said. 

The event was also the first ever held in the auditorium at the new CODE building on the Downtown Mall. 

“It’s hard to believe that this space used to be an ice park just a few years ago,” said Chris Engel, the city’s director of economic development. “As an economic developer, I think about the built environment and changes to it and watching cities evolve and change all of the time. Going back a little further, this space was a parking lot in 1995. And then it served as a community ice park for more than 20 years. And then it has obviously transitioned again.”

Engel said the city has changed a lot over the years as well, including a string of city managers in the past four years. Interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers represented city leadership at the event. 

“I have been in local government and the private sector over my career for more than 30 years,” Rogers said. “I have had the fortune of working for some very complex organization which means that I have been in the midst of dealing with some very complex and challenging problems in the public sector.” 

Left to Right: Sam Sanders, Ashley Marshall, Michael C. Rogers, Chris Engel. (Credit: Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce)

Rogers said he enjoys being part of the solutions of helping organizations in conflict through strategic planning as well analyzing the values to see if they are oriented toward success. 

“I look at things that are not doing well and try to figure out how we can do this better for the people that we’re supposed to do it for,” Rogers said. “And in the public sector, that’s the citizens of the community that you serve.” 

Rogers said there has been instability in the city’s bureaucracy because of the turnover at the top position, and one of his first goals is to help reverse the trend. He acknowledges that morale has been low.

“The other priority is working with the staff to return to boring government,” Rogers said. “I think that no-drama government that’s focused on bottom-line problem solving is one that can deliver effective services to the citizens of this community.” 

There are currently two deputy city managers in Charlottesville, and Ashley Marshall has been the deputy for Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion since last May. She comes from a family whose members have served in local government. 

“Local government has the opportunity [and] it has the honor of making someone’s day better,” Marshall said. “We have the chance to dig in to our communities and to really focus on their needs, what we can help, what we can provide, who we can lift because all boats rise together.”

Sam Sanders has been the Deputy City Manager for Operations since last July after working for a community revitalization nonprofit in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He called himself a disruptor. 

“I disrupt the status quo,” Sanders said. “It is not my friend and I have made it a mission to do my best to help people see that we don’t just have to do it that way if that way doesn’t get us to where we want to go.” 

Sanders said he believes it is possible to help Charlottesville overcome its problems and that can be done by making sure the basics of government are functioning. 

“We need to pick up the trash, we need to make sure the water flows, we need to make sure the buses are running, that we get snow off the ground, and that the basics of the community environment are adhered to and that the parks are clean, available, and accessible,” Sanders said. 

Sanders said the city also needs to ensure that it can respond when major projects are underway at the University of Virginia. That will take process reform in the Neighborhood Development Services Department. 

“And I want to make sure that we also are doing the same level of collaborative work for the everyday citizen that is trying to come in and make something happen,” Sanders said. 

I’ll have more from the State of the Community Event in a future installment of Charlottesville Community Engagement

Watch the event on the Chamber’s website at cvillechamber.org

The event was the first held in the CODE building’s auditorium (Credit: Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce)

Timmons Group hired to build software for city’s planning department

This segment was updated on March 16, 2022 with new information on the procurement contract

The city of Charlottesville has hired a civil engineering firm to build a new software platform to help speed up the development process. The Timmons Group will be paid $902,337.50 over five years for the work, according to material obtained from the city’s procurement office.

The city issued a request for proposals (RFP) in November 2020 seeking a firm to provide a GIS-Centric, cloud-based Enterprise Land Management software system. 

“The City realizes that part of the modernization effort of becoming a “Smart City” includes strategically aligning People, Process and Technology in order to manage work more efficiently and effectively,” reads the RFP. 

The software will be used by the Department of Neighborhood Development Services to replace programs from 2008 that track the permitting process. The RFP states that the older software lacks provisions for automated workflows, which creates “bottlenecks in the comprehensive Development Process” with a reliance on paper. 

“The lack of citizen self-service capabilities through the current system limits the local development community’s ability to engage remotely with the City by applying for permits electronically,” the RFP continues. “The City expects NDS to achieve substantial gains in productivity, accuracy, mobility, and capacity to make data-driven decisions through the implementation of the ELM software.” 

The hope is to have the software functional and live by May 2023.

I know this might be “inside baseball” but I am very excited about the prospect of being able to view land use applications remotely, as we can already do with Albemarle County’s Community Development Department. So, I will be tracking this with great enthusiasm!

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