Wednesday, December 28, 2011

End of an Era

As of next Tuesday evening, Charlottesville will have a new Mayor. After serving two terms in that role, it's time for me to hand over the gavel (which, come to think of it, I don't recall banging once in the last four years. Hmm.). I still have two years left on City Council itself, but as of January 3 the job of running our Council meetings, representing the City at countless functions and events, serving as chief spokesperson for the City, etc., will belong to someone else. The Mayorship is a demanding, time-consuming and frequently thankless position but I have enjoyed it greatly and I appreciate all the kind words and support I have received from many of you since taking it on. I wish my successor well.

Since being elected to City Council in 2006 and being selected as Mayor in 2008, I have worked closely with my fellow Councilors, City staff, community leaders and everyday citizens to help forge a good deal of positive change here in Charlottesville. Despite experiencing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, we in Charlottesville (unlike many other localities across the country) have managed our City finances to where we've avoided having to raise taxes or slash basic services and have ended each year with a budget surplus and a stable AAA bond rating. Meanwhile, we've made significant -- if not record-level -- investments in affordable housing, youth services, parkland acquisition, new aquatic facilities, clean energy and green building initiatives, a renovated Downtown Mall, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, expanded transit service, park improvements, upgraded sewer/stormwater lines, our first new fire station in over five decades, etc. Fulfilling the top plank on my 2006 campaign platform, we created a dedicated fund for affordable housing and adopted an ambitious strategic plan for housing that has already led to the construction, preservation or renovation of hundreds of affordable housing units. We have deployed innovative economic development measures that are attracting hundreds of new jobs to our commercial corridors and we are targeting more dollars at businesses who hire locally. We have launched an ambitious campaign to transform our public housing neighborhoods from isolated pockets of poverty into mixed-income communities featuring better quality housing and improved opportunities for our residents, with a Residents Bill of Rights guiding the way. We have embraced a true Living Wage for our entry-level employees and called upon other area employers to do the same. Through our close partnership with the City schools, we have cut the high school dropout rate by over half and significantly expanded our early childhood education program. We have stepped up our workforce development efforts for adults and teens alike, including a major expansion of our summer jobs program for youth. We have hired a talented and even-handed new City Manager to take the reins at City Hall. We have initiated a Dialogue on Race, declared ourselves a City of Second Chances for re-entering ex-felons, spoken out for women's rights and LGBT equality, and implemented other measures to improve social relations in our community. We have changed our zoning rules to preserve Charlottesville's thriving live music scene. We have invested in permanent, proven solutions to homelessness. We have established a new Sister City in Ghana and have already facilitated visits by dozens of individuals between Charlottesville and Winneba. We have called for a speedier resolution to the war in Iraq while honoring those who have served our country in uniform. We have taken steps to improve animal welfare and to humanely reduce pet overpopulation. We have started a program to strengthen low-income families by encouraging men to become "real dads" and take responsibility for the children they've sired. We have empaneled a task force to identify a permanent home for our cherished City Market and are now exploring the idea of a downtown market district. We have promoted local foods, local artists, locally-owned businesses and local history. We have instituted a recycling and solid-waste program that is one of the greenest in the country. We have created a Citizens Advisory Panel for our police department and devoted unprecedented resources to preventing crimes against children. We have kicked off a year-long 250th birthday party for the city in 2012. We have made a whole lot of lists of best city for this and best city for that. I could go on. It's been a busy few years.

As Mayor, I have put a priority on openness and accessibility. While I have not always been as responsive as I would have liked, I have replied to tens of thousands of e-mail messages and countless phone calls, participated in hundreds of community events, made hundreds of media appearances, spoken to dozens of school groups, given numerous presentations at local, statewide and national conferences, and maintained an active Facebook page, a weekly radio show, a public access TV show (2007-2009) and a blog (2006-2011). I like to think that people feel I am pretty approachable, even though my kids, when they're with me, often wish that I were less so. When I've disagreed with people on issues, I've tried to do so agreeably, but admit to cringing on occasion when recalling things I'd said in the heat of a moment. I try to find common ground among competing interests and I count as valued advisors people who are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Greens, Socialists, Tea Partiers and Raging Moderates. I note with no small interest and pride that I, a progressive Democrat, have advocated for larger reductions in government spending than any other local elected official of either party in Charlottesville or Albemarle County in recent years, by arguing (with mixed success) that there often are better, cheaper, smarter and greener solutions to local problems (like the water supply) than the conventional wisdom and traditional right-left choices provide for. I have used the bully pulpit of the Mayorship to speak out for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for non-partisan redistricting, for federal- and state-level affordable housing trust funds, for an end to military adventurism abroad, for gay marriage, for reproductive choice, for legalization of industrial hemp. I have greeted many visiting dignitaries to Charlottesville, from Michelle Obama to Governors Tim Kaine & Bob McDonnell to Snoop Dogg and beyond. I got to meet Barack Obama in the White House. I was named an honorary warrior chief ("Osahene") for the Effutu people of Ghana's central region. I've been called every name in the book by people who disagreed with this or that decision I made, but I've resisted the temptation to enlist my Effutu warriors against those people. Because that's how even-tempered warrior chiefs rule.

Needless to say, while we've made good progress in recent years and while serving as Mayor of Charlottesville has been an incredible honor and privilege, much work remains to be done. We may have one of the lower unemployment rates of any metropolitan area in the country, but too many of our residents are still without work and too many others are stuck in low-wage, dead-end jobs. Our young people still face too many barriers to realizing their highest potential. Our black middle class has continued to erode and racial disparities remain a pressing concern. We aspire to be a "Green City" but too often we make choices which don't reflect our greenest potential. We still don't make it quite easy or quite safe enough for more of our residents to choose alternatives to single-occupancy-vehicle travel. Too many of our citizens are forced to make difficult choices by the ongoing shortage of affordable housing in our community -- working multiple jobs, moving miles away to find homes they can afford, doubling up with family or friends, cutting back on other basic expenses so they can make their rent or mortgage payments, going homeless. Our region is plagued by too much suburban sprawl and yes, the bumper sticker is painfully true: sprawl does cost us all -- a lot. We insist on maintaining anachronistic institutions in Virginia (like the Dillon Rule and our unique system of Independent Cities) which perpetuate disfunction in public administration and make City governance more difficult and costly than it needs to be. Again, I could go on. Overcoming all of these challenges seems like a daunting task. And it surely is. But I'm convinced that if one place in America can make meaningful progress on all of these fronts, it's Charlottesville, VA. Ours is an uncommonly resourceful and engaged community. Both in the remainder of my civic life and in the new professional adventure I'm about to undertake (stay tuned for more on that soon), I look forward to doing what I can to help harness those resources and capitalize on that spirit of engagement to make this wonderful city an even better place to live for all of our residents. I truly believe that our best years lie ahead of us.

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