After several tumultuous weeks in an already divisive year, Hopewell’s administrative leadership after August remains a question mark
HOPEWELL — After several tumultuous weeks in an already divisive year, Hopewell’s administrative leadership after August remains a question mark.
At a special meeting held Monday night, City Council voted to publicly advertise the position of city manager, a role that will become empty Sept. 1 when the present city manager, Mark Haley, retires. The decision came on the heels of two other Council votes to not appoint Assistant City Manager Charles Dane to the job but to make him interim city manager once Haley departs.
Whether Dane will accept the appointment, however, is unclear. In a prior undated letter sent to Council and leaked to the public, he stated, “I will not pursue the position of City Manager if a recruitment is performed.”
Dane said Tuesday that he was “withholding any comment until a later date.”
Council indicated Monday night that it planned to speak with Dane about the interim appointment during the body’s next closed session meeting, scheduled for Aug. 8.
Besides the city manager position, the city also faces upcoming top-level vacancies left by the July 19 resignation of City Attorney Stefan Calos and the planned exit of Interim Finance Director Lance Wolff, who stepped in as a contractor after the firing of former Finance Director Jerry Whitaker in December.
Council divided 4-3 on Dane’s appointment, with Mayor Jackie Shornak, Ward 5 Councilor Janice Denton and Ward 1 Councilor Christina Luman-Bailey supporting the assistant city manager and Vice Mayor Jasmine Gore, Ward 2 Councilor Arlene Holloway, Ward 3 Councilor Tony Zevgolis and Ward 6 Councilor Brenda Pelham opposing him.
“My due diligence tells me that I need to see a pool of people, and if (Dane) floats to the top I have no issue with voting for him,” said Pelham after making a motion to advertise the position. “However, I need to know what else is out there.”
Overall, however, Council struggled to discuss the decision of whether to appoint Dane or advertise the position because prior discussions on the issue had taken place in closed session.
Under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, public bodies are permitted to hold closed meetings to discuss prospective candidates for employment as well as the appointment of specific public officers. However, according to the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, “nothing in FOIA prohibits someone from telling the public what went on in the closed meeting.” Additionally, the discussion of confidential subjects in public can be considered a waiver of the public body’s right to confidentiality.
“We started this conversation in June,” Gore said. “In June there was a majority to advertise. We are now in July, at the end of July. Those that wanted to advertise have waited for this special meeting so that everyone could be together to talk about the issues,” she said. “We talked about the issues and we came out with the understanding that although we may not agree on the appointment and the advertising, that we weren’t going to try to do anything else.”
Denton pushed back, saying, “She and I must have been in a different meeting, because what I recall in closed session was that we didn’t agree.”
As the disagreement over what votes had been taken and what had been discussed in closed session continued, Calos intervened: “I think we need to all be careful about what’s been discussed and what’s not been discussed in closed meeting per se. The point is we’re here, however we got here.”
Ultimately, the group in favor of advertising the city manager position prevailed in a 5-2 vote, with only Shornak and Denton opposing.
The decision to not appoint Dane as the next city manager and to open the field of candidates was disappointing to some Hopewell residents, about 80 of whom turned out for Monday night’s meeting. Many had been alerted to the meeting by a flyer distributed around the city supporting Dane as the next city manager and accusing Zevgolis of seeking to “buddy up” to Councilors Pelham, Gore and Holloway.
“Important meeting for the city…..Be there!! Or he will ‘spin’ it!” declared the flyer, which was created by Keith E. Johnson, Denton’s son.
Reached by phone, Denton told The Progress-Index that she “didn’t have anything to do with” Johnson’s poster but that she did “admire him for taking a stand.”
She denied that the flyer, which targeted the only three African American members of Council alongside Zevgolis, was intended to be “prejudiced,” noting that Johnson had been vocal in the past about speaking out against white councilors as well.
Zevgolis caught fire from residents Monday over an early attempt to remove communications from citizens from the agenda, which he claimed had “never been done” in a special meeting. Despite his protest, however, Council not only permitted residents to speak but also waived its rule prohibiting them from speaking about matters on the agenda.
“I think (Dane) has done extraordinarily good things for the city in his tenure as the assistant city manager, and I think he deserves a chance,” said Mike Bujakowski, a former Council member and mayor.
While addressing the Council, Bujakowski encouraged those who had turned out to support Dane to stand, a request that brought about 40 people to their feet.
Ward 4 resident Carol Saunders reflected that in her 75 years, “It’s the first time since all the plants left Hopewell that I have seen people not going around saying Oh woe to me, Hopewell is down.
“We’re seeing things happen. Why change things when we’re on a roll?” she asked.
Support for the assistant city manager was not unanimous, however. Former fire chief John Tunstall warned that not requiring Dane to go through an application process could be perceived as preferential treatment by municipal employees.
“What message are you sending to other city employees when you say you won’t even interview somebody else?” he asked.
‒Sarah Vogelsong may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 804-722-5154.