Chapel Hill will benefit from the lessons of last year’s violent Unite the Right rally, say Town Council members who last month hired Charlottesville’s former city manager, Maurice Jones, to be the town’s next manager.
“We are getting a very talented town manager, who not just has experience in another college town, but the kind of experience that not many city managers can speak to,” council member Allen Buansi said.
“I would just encourage folks to be open minded but also to be confident that we are uniquely positioned that if there ever was that kind of incident that was close to Charlottesville that we can handle it in a different way that will keep people safe,” Buansi said.
Jones, who was hired in July, starts work Aug. 20 alongside current Town Manager Roger Stancil, who retires in September. UNC students also are returning to campus from summer break, and with them, the protests against UNC’s Confederate statue Silent Sam could pick up again.
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Jones was Charlottesville’s city manager for nearly eight years; the city council voted not to renew his contract in June.
Virginia news reports indicated the council disapproved of how he and Charlottesville’s police chief handled the Unite the Right rally by white supremacists last year. A counter-demonstrator was killed and two Virginia State Police officers died in a helicopter crash during the rally.
Chapel Hill council member Nancy Oates said the news reports she read about the rally didn’t raise any red flags about Jones. She was interested in hearing what he thought about the rally, which she called “unprecedented,” and what he had learned for the future.
Jones has declined to speak specifically about the Charlottesville council’s decision to let him go, but he said he learned a lot from the protests and the aftermath. Efforts to reach him last week for this story were unsuccessful.
“It was something that a lot of people [nationwide] weren’t necessarily prepared for — not on that level — and so we had a lot of conversations with folks about what are some of the things you’re doing to try to address this and better prepare next time and what are some of the things you did well,” he said in July.
Oates said Jones was her top choice from the beginning.
“I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, to find out something that was going to kick him out, but everything that I heard supported my thinking that he was the right one,” Oates said.
Jones was chosen to lead Chapel Hill after a months-long community conversation about the kind of town manager that residents wanted. The process included a two-day assessment during which a citizen team posed scenarios and asked the finalists to respond.
Jones will earn $210,000 to manage 700 employees in Chapel Hill and a $110 million annual budget. After 17 years in Charlottesville, including as communications director and assistant manager, he was earning roughly $197,000, The Daily Progress reported.
The paper also reported last week that Jones will receive a lump sum payout of $115,000, and the city will forgive $80,667 of a $113,000 loan that helped him buy a house in Charlottesville after being hired in 2010. The money also helped pay the mortgage on an Albemarle County home that he struggled to sell during the recession.
Council member Donna Bell said Jones also was among her top picks, and she was interested in hearing his perspective on the protests and how he worked with the Charlottesville council and learned from what happened.
The Chapel Hill council also shared the town’s 2011 incident at Yates Motor Co. with Jones. she said. In that incident, Chapel Hill police in riot gear and armed with semi-automatic rifles confronted protesters occupying the vacant building on West Franklin Street.
Eight protesters were arrested, and a News & Observer reporter was among several people forced to the ground and handcuffed.
The incident sparked months of conversations about police tactics and how the department should respond to peaceful and large-scale events.
“What happened [in Charlottesville] a year ago was really very tragic,” Bell said, “We didn’t have anyone who died here, but still we were having a situation that really moved very quickly and became something that we weren’t expecting very quickly, and how there was a response and how we as a community had to talk about and deal with that response for months afterward.”
In both situations, they learned that the most important thing is good communication between everyone involved, she said, including how to coordinate what’s happening and any changes to the plan.
Lack of planning
That was the major issue in Charlottesville, particularly between the Charlottesville Police Department and the Virginia State Police, according to an independent report prepared by a former U.S. district attorney. The 220-page report also blamed inadequate planning by local police for the Aug. 12 rally and a lack of proper equipment and training for its officers.
The report noted that the city had failed to respond to community criticism after a July 8 Klan rally and counter-protest, and that it had compounded the public communication failure prior to the Aug. 12 rally. The city council also contributed to the uncertainty and negatively affected public communication by injecting itself into operations normally handled by staff, the report said.
While the report noted that Police Chief Al Thomas attempted to influence the review of his department, and the Virginia State Police did not cooperate, Jones and City Attorney Craig Brown encouraged staff cooperation and provided relevant information, it said.
Jones, Thomas and others have left the city since the review was released, and community activist Nikuyah Walker was elected mayor.
Concerns about Walker’s ethics prompted the first pick for interim city manager to turn down the job July 24, local media reported. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported the decision came after a closed-door meeting involving “yelling and accusations of impropriety and unethical behavior.”
Three council members hired assistant city manager Mike Murphy for the job on July 31 — in a meeting that was announced only 10 minutes earlier, Daily Progress reported. The mayor was out of state, and a fourth council member listened by phone but did not vote.
‘A really good candidate’
There’s no way that what happened in Charlottesville wouldn’t be an important consideration for Chapel Hill, Bell said, but what was most important to her is how Jones was able to talk about it in terms of racial issues and not just a disagreement between two sides.
“It was both recent and a very large national incident,” Bell said, “but there are so many other things that we learned about him, and the way he ran his town, the relationship he had with his citizens, the way he thought about economic development, how he thought about town-gown issues, so it was not the determining factor in what made him feel like a really good candidate for Chapel Hill.”
Buansi agreed, noting that Jones “had a great track record on affordable housing, as the manager of a comparable college town [and] of reaching out into public housing communities and including the input of other historically under-represented groups.”
“He came with excellent references as far as integrity, his collaborative nature and public service. Those are kind of the principal reasons for why he rose to the top of the crop,” Buansi said.