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February 04, 2012

Council discusses city vision at retreat

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DailyProgressBy Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Saturday, February 4, 2012

The 2012 City Council sought a fresh start Friday by spending all day at the Wintergreen resort in Nelson County at a retreat intended to welcome two new members.

“I am hoping we can get to know each other better [because] it will help us be a better council,” Mayor Satyendra Huja said.

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Councilors and senior staff are led by facilitator Becky Clay Christensen 

Becky Clay Christensen, who facilitated the event, said the council had an opportunity to form a new identity after the recent arrivals of Kathy Galvin and Dede Smith.

“Each time you change one person, it results in a whole different chemistry,” Christensen said. “Let’s understand the new chemistry.”

Christensen began the meeting by asking councilors to talk about where they were born, what their birth order is and what they typically do on a Friday. They were further asked to describe what they wanted from the meeting.

They were also asked to describe themselves with an adjective that began with the same letter as their name.

“Definitely” Dave Norris and “Strong-headed” Satyendra Huja both said they wanted to talk about the council’s priorities for the coming year. “Kaleidoscopic” Kathy Galvin said she wanted to get the council working as a team. “Dedicated” Dede Smith said she wanted to know where her fellow councilors stand on the big issues that will be coming up in the next year.

“‘K’ollaborative” Kristin Szakos said the retreat was a chance to rebuild relationships after the contentious 3-2 vote in mid-January that served as the city’s final approval of the community water supply plan.

“Our time as councilors started on something divisive and I want to figure out how we can move beyond that,” Szakos said.

Councilors were then asked to review the City Council vision statement to identify areas where the city has been successful, areas where challenges remain and passages that could be eliminated.

“We can uplift that and hold that up in the eyes of the community as our shared vision and stick to it and use it as a metric,” Norris said.

Councilors reached consensus that the city has been successful in promoting workforce development, encouraging infill development and creating new affordable housing strategies.

Challenges included the city’s higher-than-average infant mortality rate, insufficient infrastructure for bicycles and providing enough affordable housing.

“This is an important part of the creation of your new culture as a council,” Christensen told the group.

The council also reviewed its short-term list of priorities to determine if they were still valid.

Norris said the most recent list, adopted at the last retreat in May 2011, was too long.

“We’re trying to do so much with the priority list,” Norris said. “We should pull out four or five things and say that’s what we’re going to do.”

Each councilor was asked to select one major issue they would like to tackle in the next two years.

Huja said he wanted bike infrastructure to be prioritized.

“Unless you’re really a bike nut you’re not going to ride a bike in Charlottesville because it’s not safe,” Huja said.

Galvin said she wanted a strategic action plan to increase employment opportunities for low-skilled and low-income citizens.

Szakos said she wanted to strengthen the area’s support system for children.

Smith said she wanted the city to take a “serious look” at restructuring the transit system.

Norris said he wanted the council to work towards creating a district that would be a home for the City Market and also offer other opportunities for mixed use development.

City Manager Maurice Jones said the priority list is a useful tool for staff.

“We look at the priorities and it helps us know what you want to invest in,” Jones said.

Councilors spent about an hour giving broad direction to Jones on how to solve the $1.2 million budget hole faced by the city school system due to reductions in state funding for education.

Jones said that the city could fix this year’s budget crisis by using one-time money, such as the $1.5 million that had been set aside to consolidate Walker Upper Elementary School and Buford Middle School.

“I’m willing to step in with one time money but what I want to see from them is a well thought out plan for how they will wean themselves off of the short-term assistance,” Norris said. “What I want to be hearing and seeing from them is ways to make cuts that are more administrative in nature than impacting the classroom experience.”

“Schools need to go back to zero-based budgeting and really look closely at where we spend our money and where our priorities are,” Smith said. “Sometimes an economic downturn is an opportunity to have the difficult conversations.”

Szakos suggested that the city might consider raising its meals tax and dedicate the additional funding for education. She said Roanoke passed a similar measure that was met with support from restaurant owners.

Norris said he could support looking at the meals tax increase in the future, but not for this year.

“We have money available and I don’t want to put our businesses at a disadvantage,” Norris said. “It’s something worth talking about.”

No decisions were made at the retreat, but all five councilors said it had been successful.

“I appreciate getting to know people’s perspectives more and finding that there is common ground,” Galvin said.

“I really look forward to a year of fascinating discussions together,” Smith said. “We have more things that we agree on than we disagree on.”

 

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