The Charlottesville City Council will take the unusual step Wednesday of holding a closed-door session to “discuss the performance and discipline of an elected official,” a sign that the fallout from the way the city handled the Aug. 12 white supremacist rally continues to roil the city’s leadership.
Charges and countercharges have flown about whether the city was prepared for the rally that eventually led to three deaths and who was to blame for a plan that left police officers either reluctant or unable to respond as violent clashes broke out between rallygoers and counterprotesters.
A leaked memo from the City Council to City Manager Maurice Jones last week questioned many aspects of how he and Police Chief Al Thomas, handled the rally. Jones’s five-page pointed response provided an inside look at just how strained the relationship has become between all of those responsible for the city’s operation and safety.
In typically sedate Charlottesville, a college town of close to 50,000, the tense exchanges and accusations appear to have crossed a line.
Council members contacted would not identify the elected official who will be the focus of their special meeting Wednesday. But there has been criticism leveled by community leaders and others about the way Mayor Michael Signer, a Democrat who was elected in 2016, dealt with the rally and its aftermath.
The five-member council, on which Signer also serves, has the power to punish one its own members “for disorderly conduct by a fine not exceeding three hundred dollars,” according to the Charlottesville City Code. The council can also by a two-thirds vote “expel a member of its own body for malfeasance or misfeasance in office.”
In the leaked memo to Jones, council members asked the city manager to explain why he wasn’t more aggressive in pursuing an alternate location for the Unite the Right rally, why he took a vacation in the weeks immediately leading up to the rally, why more restrictions weren’t placed on rallygoers to make the event safer and why there was “apparent unwillingness of officers to directly intervene during overt assaults captured in many videos.”
Signer wrote on his Facebook page that when he had asked the police chief how he could help with the city’s response to the rally, he was told by Thomas, “Stay out of my way.”
But in his point-by-point response to the council’s memo, Jones rebutted every charge that had been laid against him and Thomas. Jones said that he had pushed to move the rally to another location — which triggered a legal challenge by the organizers. “Despite the best efforts of our legal team and outside counsel,” that effort failed in court, Jones wrote in his rebuttal. He also said that he had been in communication with the council in the weeks leading up to the rally and shared information the council requested.
On the question of why police did not seem to intervene in clashes, Jones said there was no “stand down” order and that “the city is concerned about reports of officers’ unwillingness to intervene in particular situations.”
According to Jones, Thomas has ordered police commanders to review body-camera video footage from every Charlottesville police officer assigned to the demonstration, approximately 8 to 10 hours of video for each officer.
The sharpest response Jones made in his rebuttal was to complaints by Signer that he had not been allowed in the city’s command center to monitor events.
“On two separate occasions during the height of the crisis, the Mayor threatened my job and that of the police chief because of our concerns about allowing him to be part of the command center,” Jones wrote. “He said, ‘You work for me,’ and I replied that ‘I worked for the City Council.’ ”
The communication between the council, city manager, police chief and state officials is likely to be the focus of planned investigations and pending lawsuits. On Friday, the council announced that Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, would lead an independent review of the events of Aug. 12.
But even that decision is coming under fire. On Tuesday, state Republicans criticized the choice of Heaphy to lead the investigation, saying that he had contributed $200 to Signer’s campaign fund and given $2,750 this year to Democrats running in Virginia elections.
The Republican Party of Virginia issued a statement asking how Heaphy could provide “an unbiased review” of the city’s or state’s actions.
“After the tragic events in early August, the citizens of the Commonwealth deserve a review to deliver the truth, not a partisan white wash,” the statement read.
Heaphy said on Tuesday that his political contributions have no bearing on the review he is leading of events in Charlottesville this summer.
“That work is not political and will be pursued without bias,” he wrote in an email. “I do not believe we are in any way encumbered from objectively evaluating these events. I am looking forward to providing an accurate account of the protest events and constructive recommendations for improved practices going forward.”