In today’s first Patreon-fueled shout-out is for the Plant Northern Piedmont Natives Campaign, an initiative that wants you to grow native plants in yards, farms, public spaces and gardens in the northern Piedmont. Native plants provide habitat, food sources for wildlife, ecosystem resiliency in the face of climate change, and clean water. Start at the Plant Northern Piedmont Natives Facebook page and tell them Lonnie Murray sent you!
On today’s show:
Charlottesville’s Fire Department releases an annual report and the chief defends critiques of a new dispatch system
City Council discusses the firing of Police Chief RaShall Brackney
An incumbent drops out of the race for Charlottesville City Council
Nikuyah Walker is withdrawing from the 2021 election and will be a one-term City Councilor. Walker made the announcement in a Facebook post this morning in which she stated that another Black candidate in the race is being used by the Democratic Party. She said racism she experienced at last night’s City Council meeting was “the final straw.”
In the Facebook post, Walker blasted Council for being advocates of white power and called for reform of the city’s city-manager form of government. More on that at the end of today’s newsletter.
Walker has so far raised no money during the campaign process. Democrats Brian Pinkston and Juandiego Wade have raised about $70,000 each. Independent Yas Washington has raised $315. The next campaign finance report is due next Wednesday. (VPAP data)
The Virginia Department of Health reports another 4,474 new cases of COVID today, with a seven day average of 3,364. There have been 406 deaths since August 9. The seven-day percent positivity has decreased to 10.
In the Blue Ridge Health District, there are another 92 cases reported today. There have been a total of 239 fatalities in the district with 146 of them reported in the current calendar year.
Those seeking to file new unemployment claims in Virginia will now have to wait a week after enrolling with the Virginia Employment Commission. The VEC issued a release today to notify people that a temporary suspension of “Waiting Week” first made at the beginning of the pandemic is now over.
“In March 2020, Governor Ralph Northam waived the waiting week policy for all Virginia UI claimants as part of the COVID-19 pandemic emergency declaration,” states the release. “The reinstatement coincides with the end of temporary Federal benefit programs on September 4, 2021.”
For more on Waiting Week, visit the VEC’s website.
The Charlottesville Fire Department has released its annual report for the fiscal year that ended on June 2021. In the past year there is a new chief in Hezedean Smith, recruited 22 new firefighters, and boosted work in community risk reduction. There are 114 total employees in the fire department, including six civilians. There were 5,717 calls for service, with 2,105 of those for fire calls and 3,612 medical calls.
Last week, the fire department issued a press release announcing a process change made in July called “proximity dispatch” where automatic vehicle locators and the global positioning system are used. Council will have a work session on this change on September 20.
“When an emergency prompts a 911 call, the region's Emergency Communications Center activates an automated process that immediately finds the closest emergency resources,” reads the release. “Based on the proximity of the vehicles and the city's roadway network, the emergency communication center dispatches the closest units.”
At last night’s City Council, Dr. Forest Calland spoke out in objection to the new system. He’s a trauma surgeon at the University of Virginia Health system concerned that Charlottesville - Albemarle Rescue Squad (CARS) units are not being used efficiently.
“The system that has been designed and implemented is not well-conceived,” Dr. Calland said. “Survival in an urban EMS system is inversely proportional to the number of paramedics that are deployed out in the city.”
Later on in the meeting, CARS chief Virginia Leavell gave a specific example of how the new system is not working. There are a lot of acronyms in this soundbite to explain first. ALS stands for Advanced Life Support and offers advanced care for critical patients. BLS stands for basic life support.
“On July 27, two fire engines and a CARS BLS ambulance were dispatched to an ALS level chest pain call because [Charlottesville Fire Department]’s ALS unit was on a BLS call and unavailable,” Leavell said. “CARS had three BLS ambulances in service and available within 1.2 miles of that BLS call at the time of dispatch.”
Chief Leavell said CARS should be handling those basic calls.
“The new dispatch protocol is an ineffective system in the city,” Leavell said. “It has not resulted in improved patient care. In fact it puts those at the highest risk in jeopardy.”
Leavell said she has attempted to meet with Fire Chief Smith but has not been able to do so. In this year’s budget cycle as well as the last, Leavell and others made the claim that the fire department was not holding up its end of a memorandum of agreement related to funding.
“I raised the concern last year that I thought what was happening last year to the rescue squad and their budget was grossly unfair to them,” Snook said. “I’m concerned that this year —I don’t know the details but I would like to know more — I’m concerned that we appeared to be headed toward a situation where the present EMS providers to not value the contributions of the rescue squad, which has really been a beloved institution in this town for many, many years.”
Remember that quote. We’re going to need it later on.
Later on in the meeting, Chief Smith was asked to comment.
“Ultimately the enhancements that have been adopted are appropriate for the ten square miles in a city and it is used in other regions that provide EMS and fire services,” Smith said. “We don’t have to look far as it relates to proximity dispatch. Albemarle County right next to us has implemented proximity dispatch since 2016 or 2017. Proximity dispatch ensures that our residents and visitors get the closest appropriately staffed ambulance and or first response vehicles based on established national standards and best practices.”
Smith said the changes have lowered response times to the Tenth and Page neighborhood. The conversation on September 20 will shed more light on what may become a legal issue. City Attorney Lisa Robertson said a meeting was to have been held between Chief Smith and CARS, but a string of correspondence from CARS attorney led to that being delayed.
Thanks for reading Charlottesville Community Engagement. In today’s second Patreon-fueled shout-out.
A concerned Charlottesville parent wants to make sure the community participates in the Middle School Reconfiguration process that is currently underway. After years of discussion, concrete plans are being put forward. You can learn more and contribute at the City of Charlottesville Schools/VMDOs information page at charlottesvilleschools.org/facilities.
The Charlottesville City Council meeting on September 7, 2021 was dominated by one of its members’ opposition to the termination on September 1 of former Police Chief RaShall Brackney. No official explanation has been given.
Council selects one of its own every two years to serve as Mayor, a position held since January 2018 by Nikuyah Walker. At the beginning of the meeting, a fellow Councilor requested to add an item for discussion that was not previously on the agenda.
“Madam Mayor, I would like to ask to add one thing to the agenda,” said Councilor Lloyd Snook. “It would be to move to add the discussion of an appointment of an acting [Americans with Disabilities Act] coordinator.”
“And I would like to also request to add the discussion of the termination of the police chief,” Walker said.
Snooks’ request was granted on a unanimous vote, but Walker could not get a second to add her discussion to the official agenda. But her opposition would be felt throughout the entire meeting including a few minutes later when she used the Proclamations section of the meeting to thank Brackney for her three years of service to Charlottesville.
“I would just like to thank Chief Brackney for her leadership and apologize on behalf of the city for a termination that has tarnished her reputation when she was doing exactly as someone who sat around a table to hire her and was able to participate in that democratic process which as apparently has changed,” Walker said.
The powers of City Council are outlined in Chapter 2, Article II of the Charlottesville city code and further detailed in the City Charter. Council appoints a city manager to serve as an executive, and also appoints a finance director and a clerk. Council plays no official role in selecting a police chief.
“All departments of city government, including the fire department and police department, shall be under the general supervision of the city manager,” reads Section 5.01 of the charter.
The charter is also clear that all Councilors have the same powers.
“The mayor, or vice-mayor when performing the duties of the mayor, shall be entitled to a vote on all questions as any other councilor, but in no case shall they be entitled to a second vote on any question,” reads a portion of Section 9.
Brackney terminated on September 1
City Manager Chip Boyles opted to terminate Brackney’s contract on September 1, 2021 and immediately placed her on administrative leave through November 1, the end of a 90-day period of notification. (read the press release)
During the proclamations period, Walker took nearly nine minutes to talk about Brackney’s firing, and to tell future employers that she was treated poorly. She spoke of the need to address systemic racism and to tell Council why the termination was the wrong choice. None of the other Councilors responded and the body moved on to the consent agenda, which Walker voted against.
The meeting proceeded with updates from City Manager Chip Boyles.
“Staff has developed a formal application process to create roadside memorials along certain city streets for family members of those fatally injured in auto accidents,” Boyles said. “This program should be available by October 1.”
Then Council moved on to one of two public comment periods known as Community Matters, where several members addressed the issue. Attorney Jeff Fogel called Council rude for not responding to complaints the firing.
“We expect an answer,” Fogel said. “If you meet me on the street and ask me a question on the street, dammit I’m going to answer it? You got a problem? Get off the Council.”
Melvin Burruss thanked Walker for speaking out about the firing, and said it was all based on hearsay related to an informal survey conducted by the Police Benevolent Association. An unsigned statement in response to the survey was posted on the city’s website on August 20 shortly after 5 p.m on a Friday.
Addressing Boyles, Burruss accused Councilor Snook of acting to remove the chief.
“I’m really disappointed there wasn’t an investigation,” Burruss said. “Snook counseled you and he was part of it with you on the termination. You didn’t go to the Council and discuss it with all of them because they are acting… if you did, they are acting kind of ‘I don’t know what happened.’ Or that’s the conveyance they are giving to us. You should do better than that, Chip. We thought better of you when you took over this position.”
When it was Council’s turn to speak, Snook wanted to respond why he did not second Walker’s desire to place Brackney’s termination on the record. Virginia’s open meetings law allows for elected bodies to discuss personnel in closed session. (code)
“I asked the question when we were in closed session what would be the ground rules if we did so,” Snook said. “Nobody could answer. I am concerned that if we have a public discussion without any ground rules, recognizing that there are libel, slander, other procedural issues that may come up, that we’re opening ourselves up for more problems and I just don’t know what the ground rules are.”
Councilor Michael Payne said the timing of the firing created doubt in the minds of the community.
“What are we going to do to ensure and ensure for the public that we do not go backwards on reform and that is a real concern,” Payne said. “Has this sent a signal that it is time to go back to the old ways of doing things? I desperately hope that it’s not.”
Payne said city leadership must demonstrate that Brackney’s firing was not motivated by a sense that reform was going too far in the department.
Councilor Heather Hill said she also did not feel comfortable discussing the matter in public.
“These are personnel discussions and I am really sensitive to how much we will discuss publicly at this time without really understanding what the scope of that discussion would be,” Hill said.
Vice Mayor Sena Magill did not comment.
In rebuttal, Walker took issue with the comment Councilor Snook made about the Charlottesville - Albemarle Rescue Squad.
“You used the words ‘grossly unfair’,” Walker said. “So maybe you don’t know how to monitor yourself but that would be a good time to do that. You would need to find out more information without critiquing employees publicly when you and Councilor Hill already have a lot of information because you’ve been meeting with them.”
To be clear, Snook did not mention the names of any employees of the fire department. Council is to have a work session on these issues. Walker said she hoped the process would be fair. But back to the termination. Walker noted that Dr. Brackney was on the call and willing to have a public conversation.
“And so if there’s any questions about whether there is a willingness to have that conversation and if it’s about personnel, then we can ask her that question,” Walker said.
“It would also involve personnel discussions of other people than Chief Brackney,” Snook said.
“Well the other people were not terminated,” Walker said.
“Doesn’t matter, “ Snook said. “They still have rights to confidentiality that we are bound legally to respect.”
In another back and forth, Walker pressed Hill on whether she was involved in the decision to terminate Brackney.
“I have not influenced this process,” Hill said. “I found at the same time at the rest of this Council. That decision has been made. Do I support that decision? I do.”
Walker said the time has come for reform of the way Charlottesville is governed.
“I know there’s been a lot of discussion about one-fifth means, and I know there’s been a lot of confusion about the fact that I’m a strong Black woman and people don’t like that,” Walker said.
Walker said the city manager position should be elected.
“Not because I see myself in the position,” Walker said. “But because of the power of that position. I hope the community is understanding that while that is not something that today, this is your community and deciding whether you want someone who doesn’t have to answer your questions to be able to make a decision this important behind closed doors and never answer.”
The last time the topic of elections came up was in 2004 when an election study task force was commissioned. Review the results here.
Walker asked each Councilor to say if they supported the decision. Vice Mayor Magill went on the record.
“I feel that this is a decision of the City Manager, and we hired the City Manager and this is his job,” Magill said. “It is his job to run the city under our overarching policies. I feel like he talks to us, I feel he communicates with us and fundamentally this is his decision and I’m behind him on it, period.”
Walker accused the rest of the Council of speaking with Boyles before the termination.
“Mayor Walker, one of your fundamental premises is correct,” Snook said. “I have never recommended to Mr. Boyles that he fire Chief Brackney and I’ve told you that.”
Walker has more questions
After that, Council moved on to other business, business we’ll cover in a future newsletter. After that business concluded, Walker had several questions about what happened with the police chief. Some dealt with comments made by Bellamy Brown, the chair of the Police Civilian Review Board, related to the Police Benevolent Association survey.
“The August 20th press release was also unsigned and that was a concern, where people thought this was something the chief forced out,” Walker said. “I would like a public response to who worked on that survey and why their name was left off of it. Specifically, for the city manager. Why wasn’t your name on it?”
Walker also wanted to know when the decision was made to place Chief Brackney on leave. Walker also wants to know if Assistant Chief James Mooney will receive special dispensation after rescinding his retirement in order to lead the department in the interim.
In the second public comment period at the end of the meeting, Michael Wells of the Central Virginia Chapter of the Police Benevolent Association thanked Boyles for terminating Brackney.
“Unfortunately for Dr. Brackney, the Police Benevolent Association climate survey is largely focused not on policy but internal procedural justice issues,” Wells said. “I just want to tell you guys that you have a real issue in Charlottesville City. You have a few people that speak up all the time and those people garner your attention all the time. Now I’m going to be one of those people. Because I’m involved, I want to be involved. I want the city to have a good chief. I wish it had worked out with Dr. Brackney but it did not.”
When he was done, Walker took the opportunity to question Wells. That exchange is fully documented in the audio version of this newsletter. Here is some of it:
Walker: “Do you think that internal procedural justice is important than healing the wrongs that have been done by policing in this community?”
Wells: “I think if you want your police officers to take on other policies and procedures that you have to have buy-in from them.”
Walker: “So, 21st century reform, you think our focus should be getting buy-in from police officers?”
Wells: “I think your focus should be safe streets because about every other night you have shootings now, so I think your focus needs to be on supporting your officers.”
Walker: “So you think throughout the history of policing that there hasn’t been a need for reform?”
Wells: “No, I think it’s important for officers to have confidence in their command in order to be most effective, and effective officers are what you need and deserve… you can’t afford a police department with limitless internal distractions and non-existent morale. There’s work to be done.”
Walker: “They surveys talked about the reform was causing that low [morale].”
Wells: “No, you’re wrong. You’re wrong. You’re wrong. How long have you been a cop?”
Walker: “I’m telling you what I read. Your survey also said that both the citizens of the community and the command were a problem.”
Wells: “That’s right. They need support from the community…. the community is what’s most important and that means everyone, every race and color and not just Black and brown. Everyone.”
Walker: “So the community that’s most affected by policing practices, you don’t believe…”
Wells: “Where are your facts about racist policing? Where is that? Provide it?”
At this point, a report on 21st Century Policing came up. Have you read it? Here’s a link to a 36-page document with its results. (report)
Another resource that was not discussed was the Disproportionate Minority Contact report from January 2020. (report)
Walker: “Why did President Obama institute that task force?”
Wells: “I think we know why.”
Walker: “Tell me!”
Wells: “Good day, Mayor.”
Walker then addressed Council.
“That’s what you just signed on for and you all should be ashamed because as I told you in closed session, they’re not coming for your kids.” Walker said. “They’re not going to target you.”
To conclude today, I want to draw your attention to legislation that passed the General Assembly in a special session held in the summer of 2020. Localities in Virginia are subdivisions of the state government. Legislation in that session included:
Some of this legislation was discussed in the pilot episode of a new program on Radio IQ that I helped produce. William Fralin moderates a discussion of police use of force with guests Claire Gastañaga, formerly of the Virginia ACLU, and Chief Maggie DeBoard, of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. Take a listen.
What’s next in Charlottesville? Not sure. As you can hear in this newsletter, the community faces a lot of problems. This newsletter intends to try to track as much of it as I can and I appreciate your reading and listening. I do not know the answers and my role is never to tell you what to think. Thanks for reading.