Mike's New Newsletter

May 2, 2017

Welcome to another installation of my occasional newsletter as Mayor of Charlottesville.  

It's been an exciting and busy last few months here.  Our most important accomplishment, both in terms of dollars and political will, was to pass a $171.6 million budget that includes some major new investments.

I frequently say that I believe budgets are moral documents.  Our new budget works hard to increase equity and opportunity in C'ville while making investments in a city already frequently rated among the country's best places to live. 

Charlottesville is booming.  Our population has gone up 12% in 6 years, and commercial assessments went up an average of 30% this year.  This created a bounty of tax revenue but a lot of anxiety for property owners, and risks further increasing housing prices and our cost of living.  

For those reasons, I was very proud that my colleagues supported my call in my State of the City address to double our contribution to our Affordable Housing Fund.  Less successful was my proposal to lessen the impact of our taxes by reducing our real property tax rate from 95 cents to 93 cents, which was not supported by Council. 

Our budget also invested an additional $2 million in our public schools, increased our public safety salaries by over $500,000, established a living wage for all City employees, invested millions of capital dollars in major infrastructure projects such as the West Main streetscape corridor connecting the Corner and the Downtown Mall, our new strategic parking plan, and a new BelmontBridge, and puts $2.5 million toward the redevelopment of public housing.

We also added over $100,000 to our overall support for nonprofit partners like the Community Investment CollaborativeAfrican-American Teaching Fellows, the Charlottesville Free Clinic, the Thomas Jefferson Coalition for the Homeless, the Boys and Girls Club, and the Sexual Assault Resource Agency.

There have been other major accomplishments in recent weeks.  I was very proud to lead a successful effort to cut taxes for small businesses earning between $50,000 and $100,000 in the City, by changing a rate charged against gross income to a simple $50 fee, saving 450 businesses hundreds of dollars a year. 

Following on my promise at the Capital of Resistance press conference in January to drive action on immigration in our City, we unanimously passed a new policy setting forth the principles that will guide us on immigration issues.  

We explained that our limited resources should be dedicated to local and state law enforcement, and made clear that we stand with our law enforcement professionals who all believe our limited and welcoming approach builds the bridges within our community necessary to maintaining public safety. 

We also created and funded two important new programs -- a $10,000 allocation to the Legal Aid Justice Center to provide Know Your Rights trainings, education programs for immigrants and their families, and litigation support for detainees, and aresource brochure to be widely distributed through the community.

Another major step forward was our passage of a multi-faceted agreement to develop the blighted Landmark Hotel that has loomed for several years on our Downtown Mall--a major promise of my campaign for City Council.  The agreement includes tax abatements and parking incentives and will bring a 5-star hotel and several related businesses to our key commercial sector, with an estimated $8-9 of tax revenue earned for each $1 invested by the City,  

On the controversial issue of our Confederate statues, we also unanimously moved forward a $1 million plan to add new monuments to recontextualize both our Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson parks in a "precinct" concept Downtown.  

There was also a divided 3-2 vote to remove the Robert E. Lee statue, which I voted against, explaining, "I worry about the impulse to remove, delete, and expunge that which offends us... we must see and defy these monuments to overcome what they mean."  You can read my full speech here.

Finally, in a continuing effort to make our governance as efficient, engaged, and effective as possible, we affirmed our support for the new governing procedures we passed a little over a year ago, while adding 25% more public comment slots than in decades past.

Along the way, C-SPAN's American Cities tour visited our fair city and was kind enough to interview me both for a BookTV segment about my book Becoming Madison and a piece about the Resistance movement here.

Meanwhile, we supported the Tom-Tom Founders Festival with a $25,000 donation, which in turn brought tens of thousands of visitors to Charlottesville for an extended celebration of innovation, art, creativity, music.  I was pleased to appear in the festival's opening event, where I presented a mayoral proclamation celebrating Tom-Tom's branding of Charlottesville as "America's Founding City,"

Finally, I was honored to appear at UVA's Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy with famed chef Alice Waters and Rosa Atkins, our Superintendent of Schools, to announce a week-long Farm to Schools and Healthy Schools Week this October, where we'll serve healthy and locally-sourced school lunches -- an initiative I developed after first meeting Alice here last summer. 

That's it from here.  I hope all is well with you and yours, and please don't ever hesitate to reach out with ideas, thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

Thanks,

Mike

Mike's Statement on Charlottesville's Confederate Statues

February 6, 2017

[NOTE:  After delivering this statement, Mike voted for a motion that passed unanimously to "transform in place" for the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monuments through new memorials, allocating up to $1 million for that purpose, while renaming both parks to reflect current values].

I am going to vote against this motion, for reasons I will explain shortly.  But I want to be very clear.  My vote is not for the statue.  I despise the Jim Crow era, and I revile the racism and white supremacy of our past that certainly is included in these statues’ history and meaning. 

However, as I have explained in the past, my vote will be to support one of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations that, in this case, we add to history, rather than subtract from it.  The Commission’s charge was to change the narrative in Charlottesville by telling the full story of race through our public spaces. 

After studying the issue for six months and listening to thousands of people, they voted, no matter what, to keep the statues within the borders of Charlottesville.  One of their two recommendations was to “transform in place.”  I will be voting today for a motion to support such a plan, one that would tie together Lee Park, Jackson Park, the slave auction block, and the Freedmen’s Bureau in such a way that would challenge and transform the statues’ Jim Crow legacy and that would, forever, change the narrative in Charlottesville.  I envision a magnificent new memorial to civil rights victories in Lee Park, and a magnificent new memorial to the slave auction block in Jackson Park, we would create a dynamic conversation, adding to our history and changing our narrative.  And this can happen regardless of whether the Lee statue is moved.

In focusing on addition rather than subtraction, we would be continuing an approach that is making real progress in Charlottesville.  And we will be focusing on the impressive list of less controversial but extremely important recommendations that were contained in the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report.  In the last year alone, this City Council allocated $80,000 to the rehabilitation of the Daughters of Zion cemetery; reinstituted the Bridge Builders Award at Drewary Brown Bridge; funded a new Vinegar Hill park; and recently committed to funding the African-American Heritage Center with almost $1 million of new funding.  Meanwhile a new memorial to Gregory Swanson, who desegregated UVA Law School in a historic case, was installed in our public library, which previously served as a courthouse.

It’s worth noting that the Commission did make a second recommendation to move the Lee statue to McIntire Park.  But that recommendation did not consider the master plan for McIntire Park, or any cost, legal, or logistical concerns.  The Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee was not even consulted.  And just as there is opposition to the statue being in Lee Park, there will certainly be opposition to it being moved to the pristine turf of McIntire Park.

That brings me to my conclusion on the motion here.  I am not supporting a motion to remove the Lee statue for three main reasons. 

First, I worry about the impulse to remove, delete, and expunge that which offends us.  It’s no accident that in the course of this debate, many on both sides have attacked their opponents as immoral.  To me, that approach means the two sides are unlikely ever to try and understand each other, to see the issue through another’s eyes.  But in a year of grappling with this issue, the one thing that is even more clear to me than when we started is that this is an issue about which people of good faith can disagree.  Otherwise, how can so many good people believe the statues should stay? 

And so I’m concerned that this enterprise may unintentionally damage the progressive project.  Attempts to cleanse the public realm of irritants to progressive aims, to barricade liberal values behind seeming victories such as removing a statue, lead to more fury over those walls.  Indeed, we have seen just that violent cycle with the campaign of Donald Trump, where we saw an intense attack against progressivism in general resonate with millions of people.    

Second, I am concerned that this approach can deprive the project for racial justice of the richness and context it needs to thrive.  The following quote is from the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report:

"Numerous Charlottesville African-American residents who have lived through decades of suppression of their history oppose removal on the grounds that it would be yet another example of hiding their experience.  For them, transforming the statues in place forces remembrance of the dominance of slavery and Jim Crow white supremacy (10)."

The Commission’s finding was consistent with what I’ve heard in two town hall meetings at black churches and private conversations with hundreds of folks in this City.  For instance, the night before the last vote, at an MLK Day celebration convened by the Abundant Life Ministry, five African-American women who grew up in C'ville told me they thought the statues should stay.  I’ve heard similar ideas from many African-American leaders in our community, who have said they believe the statues should remain as “teachable moments.” 

Some have said that I should not be so deeply impacted by these voices.  They have said that African-Americans who oppose moving the statues are doing so out of fear, denial, or inability to support change, that they are exhibiting a sort of false consciousness.  Some have argued that in weighing African-American voices so heavily, I am forcing on them a burden to make this decision that is not fair to them.  But I find these arguments patronizing at best. 

The idea I believe they were expressing is that to move forward, we must visibly push against the past.  That we must see and defy these monuments to overcome what they mean.  That is a more uncomfortable reality, to be sure.  But I believe that this dialectical exhibit, and underlying process, of visible thesis, antithesis, and synthesis will create more vibrancy and dynamism for the progressive project in Charlottesville than the alternative.

Finally, there are the specific practical, legal, and logistical obstacles that suggest that this vote will not actually result in any action for a very long time.  An existing state statute prohibits the removal.  There are also documents associated with the gift from Paul Goodloe McIntire that prohibit removal.  We will likely be sued immediately on both fronts.  We will be forced to pay for the costs not only of removal, but of defending the lawsuits.  All of those concerns can certainly be outweighed by other benefits.  But on an issue that is not just black and white, but that contains many shades of gray, and requires, for me at least, the balancing of many concerns, I believe the “transform in place” option represents a better path for our government and for our city.

In conclusion, I see my job as being to try and represent all of Charlottesville as best as I can.  I have tried to do my best to make decisions to fulfill the mission we set out for the Blue Ribbon Commission, with the understanding that I am very definitely a fallible and flawed human being, and with the understanding that a very diverse portion of Charlottesville will be upset with me no matter what decision I make. 

Thank you.

Mike's "Capital of the Resistance" Speech

On January 31, 2017, Mike delivered a speech titled "A Capital of the Resistance" in front of Charlottesville's City Hall.  The speech was covered by many media, including The Daily Progress, Cville Weekly, Virginian-Pilot, WVTF (NPR), NBC29, and CBS19.  The full text of the speech is below.

“A Capital of the Resistance”

Mayor Mike Signer, City of Charlottesville

January 31, 2017

I want to begin by thanking all of you for taking the time for showing up here today.  What an amazing crowd.  Thank you for being here.

We’re going to hear today from a truly remarkable group of speakers. 

We will hear from Khizr Khan, the father of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who died courageously fighting for our country in Iraq.  And Mr. Khan is the owner of one very famous copy of the U.S. Constitution.

We will hear from Karim Ginena, a Ph.D. candidate at the Darden School of Business, with the Islamic Society of Central Virginia, which has over 2,000 members in our community.

We will hear from Harriet Kuhr, the Executive Director of the International Rescue Committee’s office here, which has brought hundreds of political refugees fleeing strife and terror to this community.

We will hear from Ahmed Al Srya, a student and political refugee from a family of Palestinian refugees who were resettled from Iraq.  He has been in Charlottesville since 2010.  He has applied for citizenship, and he’s scheduled to take his oath in February.

We will hear from Pam Northam, who’s married to our sitting Lieutenant Governor, Ralph Northam, who has spoken proudly and strongly in support of New Americans.

We will hear from Edgar Lara, who served in the U.S. Marines and the son of an undocumented immigrant.  He works with the organization Sin Barreras.

We will hear from Rabbi Tom Gutherz, the head rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel here in Charlottesville, which is the oldest continuously utilized synagogue in Virginia.

We will hear from Pastor Hodari Hamilton, who leads Charlottesville’s oldest African-American congregation at First Baptist Church on West Main Street.

We will hear from the Reverend Elaine Ellis Thomas of St. Paul's Memorial Episcopal Church, which has been in our community for over a century.

And we will hear from Jeff Legro, Vice Provost for Global Affairs & Taylor Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia.

Thank you all for your service, your leadership, and your dedication to our democracy.

Everyone, please take a moment to look around you.

Each of you has a different reason you’re here.  I hope you’ll take a moment this afternoon to introduce yourself to someone you don’t already know—and to learn their story.

I’m here for three reasons.

I’m here because of my visit to the mosque on Cherry Avenue last Saturday.  I sat with dozens of political refugees who fled oppression and tyranny in their home countries for the safe harbor of American democracy.  They had all gone through exhaustive vetting to come here.  Whether an Iraqi translator for American troops or a Syrian who refused to serve in Bassar al Assad’s Army, I listened to the fear, the confusion, and the anxiety in their voices as they wrestled with the cruel chaos coming out of the Beltway.  Again and again, they expressed bewilderment that they had escaped the frying pan only to fall into the fire. 

They’re hearing the message that America doesn’t want them here.  I could not disagree more strongly.  They are exactly the people we want here.

Second, I’m here for my paternal grandfather.  He was a Jewish kid raised in the Bronx, where he was the ping-pong champion of the whole borough, before he left for the European front in WWII, where he served as an Army Jeep mechanic on the European front. 

He was part of the forces that liberated the world from Nazism and fascism, that laid the groundwork for NATO and the Marshall Plan, and for a country that lived up to the promises of the Statue of Liberty.  

His service in the U.S. Army was one of the proudest periods of his life.  If he were alive right now, I don’t think I could look him in the face and say Grandpa, I didn’t fight for the values you fought for. 

And I’m here as a student of history.  I have studied demagogues for many years.  I even wrote a book about them.  (It was out of print until Donald Trump kindly brought it back to life).  Demagogues have always haunted democracy.   But I also know American democracy has always risen to their test.  Whether Joseph McCarthy or Joe Wallace, Huey Long or David Duke, we have outlasted, subsumed, or outright defeated those who would prey on us. 

The fancy word for why is “constitutionalism.”  That’s a long word for the simple beliefs that breathe life into democracy like the soul animates the body.  It’s what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said, “Where is our republicanism to be found?  Not in the constitution, but merely in the spirit of the people.”

That spirit is why we have never let demagogues destroy our beautiful American democracy from within.  And they’re why I’m here today.  Demagogues test us.  They are ruthless and seductive.  They flatter us.  They tell us what we want to hear.  And they bully us if we resist them.

And make no mistake.  We are being tested.

Let’s go over recent events.  Last Friday, at 4:42 p.m. the White House issued an Executive Order titled, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.”  The order was crafted by an alt-right media executive and a 31 year-old White House aide.  Neither of whom is a lawyer.

The immediate result was chaos and confusion.  Students, visitors and green-card-holding legal permanent United States residents from seven countries were stopped at airports overseas.  The order also banned holders of special visas, like Iraqis and Afghanis who served as translators for U.S. troops, from entering our country.

By Saturday night, four federal judges in New York, Massachusetts, Washington—and Virginia—temporarily blocked the order.  It was revealed that the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense and State Departments weren’t even consulted on the order. 

The order was clearly the first chapter in the “Muslim ban” the president promised during his campaign.  At first, he backpedaled, saying it wasn’t in fact a Muslim ban, even though it applied only to Muslim countries, and even though it exempted Christians.  But then his close advisor Rudy Giuliani told the truth, revealing that the President had asked him precisely how to implement a Muslim ban.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the ban violated international human rights law and said that 20,000 refugees would be affected immediately.

Intolerance in government tends to breed incompetence.  By Sunday morning, the president’s own chief of staff could not say how the order applied to green card holders.  Over 100 diplomats at the State Department signed a memo opposing the order.  Then, just yesterday, the Acting Attorney General stated that she would not defend the order in court, because it was unlawful.  And she was fired.

There’s a technical term for this kind of mess in government.  We call it a “clown show.”  But this isn’t funny.  It’s serious business.  These folks couldn’t run a two-car parade, much less policies affecting the rights of millions of people. 

And that’s why I’m here today to declare that Charlottesville, the historic home of Thomas Jefferson, is a Capital of the Resistance.

Let me state clearly.  This is not about politics or about party or even a president. 

This is about America.  This is about American values. 

Look around you.  If you want to divide us, if you want to frighten our community, if you want to extinguish the torch of our magnificent American democracy—then you’re going to have to come through us first.

This is personal for me.  As a white man in America, I’m aware every day of the blessings this country readily gives me and my two boys, but denies to so many others.  And as a Jew, I’ve had the experience of being a religious minority my entire life. 

I love that our history of Constitutional values in Virginia goes back to James Madison’s fight, as a young college graduate and activist, to protect a sect of Baptists who had been imprisoned in Culpeper for preaching without a license.

I love that our values go back to Madison’s successful fight in the Virginia legislature to defeat a proposal for a tax to fund only Christian churches.  That battle led Madison to deliver his famed and brilliant “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments.”

And I love that our values go back to Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, and his specific belief that Muslims should be protected from oppression.

My apologies for the history lesson.  But that’s the Virginia I know and love.  A Virginia of open minds and open hearts for all people and all creeds.

The word “resist” has a special meaning.  It comes from the Latin word “to stand.” That’s what all of you are doing here today.  Standing up for American values.  These are the values emblazoned on our Statue of Liberty—the words of the poet Emma Lazarus, that we are a place that embraces “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

For anyone feeling confused about what we can do right now—about what the idea of “Resistance” really means—I want to tell you about four actions I am taking, as an individual member of City Council—not on behalf of Council as a whole. 

#1.  Our refugees need federal resources.  This weekend, I spoke with Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, and I’m proud to say they both leaped at the chance to direct their staff to provide specific casework assistance to local refugees who urgently need their help.

#2.  Our refugees also need legal help.  In recent days, I’ve gathered with attorneys and law students to create a special effort to provide legal counsel to refugees.  That effort will begin this week.  And there are lawyers here who can begin helping today.

#3.  I will ask Charlottesville’s Human Rights Commission to discuss and address any complaints of xenophobia and religious and ethnic intolerance and harassment in our city.  Bigotry in any form should not be welcome here.

#4.  Finally, I have spoken with our Commonwealth’s Attorney about the challenges we might confront legally in the months and years to come on immigration.  All cities work with their prosecutors and their police to find the approach on immigration that best fits their local needs.  I plan on asking Charlottesville’s City Manager to advise City Council on all our legal options to protect immigrants and refugees—particularly if the administration’s approach becomes even more draconian.

But those are just the actions of one individual.

Everyone here can act.  In the weeks to come, resist however and wherever you can.  Take your message to your Congressman, Tom Garrett.  Take it to your neighbors and colleagues and family members.  Take it to President Trump!  Support organizations that need your help, with your labor and your words and your dollars. 

Most important of all, take a stand on America’s path forward.  We’re facing waves of change in our country—economic, demographic, technological, cultural.  We can respond by grasping for a past that’s already behind us.  We can see people through old and tired stereotypes. 

Or we can embrace these changes.  We can see diversity, and innovation, and the world itself, as a bold and bracing horizon for progress. 

Here in Charlottesville we are casting our lot with that second path.  We believe in the creativity and the vision that diversity unleashes.  And it’s working. 

We’re home to hundreds of employers who see pluralism, tolerance, competition, and productivity as part of the same whole.  A new organization of over 40 biotechnology companies just launched here.  At 3.9%, we have the lowest unemployment rate of any city in Virginia.  We’re home to the country’s number-one public university, which brings students and faculty and staff representing dozens of nationalities to Charlottesville every year.  We appear in many top 10 lists as one of the nation’s healthiest and most livable cities.

And we proudly have an office of the International Rescue Committee here.

These things are not contradictions.  They are, in fact, the key to our success.  They are our values.  They are American values. 

And they are what already make Charlottesville, and Virginia, and America, great.

Thank you.  

Mike's 2017 State of the City Address

I recently had the privilege of delivering my first State of the City address as the Mayor of Charlottesville, which was covered by the Daily Progress and NBC 29.  Here is the full text:

State of the City Address
Mayor Mike Signer
City of Charlottesville
January 17, 2017

 
Good evening, everyone.

If you haven’t seen a State of the City address before, this is my first one, too.  Hopefully, we can help each other get through this. 

The goal of the State of the City address is, once a year, to take you through the accomplishments of the past year and to give you a sense of where we’re heading. 

The tradition has been for just the Mayor to deliver the address.  But given how hard everyone on City Council works for the City, I didn’t see any reason for me to hog the limelight, and so I’ve asked my colleagues this year to also address you after my remarks. 

Let me begin by declaring that the State of our City is strong.

We have maintained our AAA bond rating by two rating agencies.

At 3.9%, our unemployment rate is the lowest in Virginia.

And we have 39,155 jobs in the city, which is the most ever recorded.

We have a $162 million budget, with over 40% spent on our public schools. 

And due to our sound fiscal practices, we ended last year with a $6 million surplus, most of which we directed toward our long-term capital projects, which are usually underfunded. 

We have received many accolades in the last year as well.

We were ranked #3 among Virginia cities in Human Rights First’s Equality Index for LGBT folks.

Entrepreneur Magazine named us the #4 city in the country for entrepreneurs.

Expedia Magazine named us the #1 place to visit in the U.S.

And the New York Post declared us #3 of the nation’s 15 Best Places to Live.

We received the “Go Green” Award from the Commonwealth of Virginia.

And Travelocity put us #1 in 9 top small cities for foodies.

And Health line named us one of the healthiest small towns in the U.S.

I ran for City Council on a theme of “One Charlottesville,” which to me meant building bridges, focusing on what unites us rather than what divides us.

During my first Council meeting as Mayor, one year ago, I announced the following goals:

“We have an opportunity before us to rebut today’s cynicism with governance itself.  As Mayor, I want schoolchildren to watch us on TV and think that they might want to be on City Council someday.  I want to lead this City Council to become an exemplar for our citizens of collegiality, of deliberation, of transparency, and of good government.” 

I promised that my main value as Mayor would be to strive for the common good.  I said I would pursue two overarching goals with this Council: respect and results.

I believe that together on this Council we have accomplished that—and then some.  Vice-Mayor Bellamy, Councilor Szakos, Councilor Galvin, and Councilor Fenwick, it has been an honor and a privilege to work with you this last year.

I especially want to thank our City Manager Maurice Jones for the hard work that he and his staff do every day implementing our vision for Charlottesville.  Mr. Jones recently became the president-elect of the Virginia Local Government Management Association—an honor he richly deserves. 

Reflecting on the last year, it’s the images that stick with me the most.

It was riding on a snowplow through a blizzard with one of our hard-working Public Works staff to get snow out of the way and get people moving.

It was sitting and learning during my first open office hour from the leader of Cville Women in Tech who passionately argued that we should implement an Open Data policy.

It was listening to the hundreds of supporters—pro and con—who showed up to the Blue Ribbon Commission meetings to reflect on our City’s troubled history and our public spaces.

It was standing with a group of citizens protesting yet another police shooting in another city, and walking folks over to meet our new Chief of Police, Al Thomas, who made sure to be there in person.

It was visiting the new headquarters of another remarkable start-up whose founder hopes to devise a non-surgical vasectomy and who decided to locate on Harris Street, in the heart of our City.

It was talking with residents at Crescent Halls about their fears and hopes about where they live.

And it was visiting the Boys and Girls Club last week, where I played a game of Mario Brothers (which was called Donkey Kong when I was little—and this will date me—on my Atari 5200) with three kids on a system they’d designed where an electric current flowed through our bodies so we could play together.

That’s our amazing city.  Our diversity and our ingenuity, our friendliness and our beauty—and our people, above all else—are what make us a World-Class City.

But when I watched City Council previously, I didn’t see that reflected on the dais.  Too often, I saw acrimony.  Too often, I saw a body that got stuck, whether in arguments with staff or with citizens. 

We need political will to solve our problems, even the most difficult ones.  We need deliberation to work our way through the issues.  And we need collaboration and compromise to get things done.

That’s been the approach this year, and it’s worked.  Coming into office, I saw four major areas where we needed to move forward: innovation, infrastructure, governance, and reconciliation. 

Innovation because for our economy to thrive for all, we cannot just depend on a few major monolithic employers.  We instead need creativity and innovation for a resilient, flexible economy---an economy more like a thriving summer garden than a sparse forest of a few tall trees.

Infrastructure because we live in a city that depends on built things—concrete, steel, wood, and metal.  These things are expensive, and they are difficult to handle politically.  But they are crucially important.  And if we fail to deal with them, then they will fail us.

Governance because we must provide a government that mirrors the best aspects of the human beings who pay for it—that’s transparent and responsive, outgoing and reflective, learning and resilient.

And reconciliation because the past, as William Faulker said, is never past.  Surveys show our deepest value in the Charlottesville area is history.  We have injuries in our past, on both race and class, that haunt us today.  And we must continue to strive to recognize, address, and overcome them.

We made progress on all four fronts.  Let me be clear.  In an age of cynicism not only about government but about politics, all of these accomplishments depended on political will. 

Here are what I see as a “top 10” from 2016:

#1:  We increased the funding of our public schools by over $2 million.  Our public schools represent our most profound commitment—both in terms of dollars and human capital—to our most vulnerable.  They are the engine of progress in our City, and we delivered for them.

#2:  We expanded the technology tax credit.  15 years ago, we were the first city in Virginia to create a city-wide 50% rebate on professional taxes for technology companies.  That was expiring last year.  We not only renewed the tax credit.  We expanded it, from 5 to 7 years, which will allow more young companies more help during those crucial early years of growth.

#3:  We lowered building heights on West Main Street because of our concern to protect historic neighborhoods surrounding, and because of our interest in historic preservation.  While this reduced the value of the real estate on this corridor by tens of millions of dollars, we thought the future of the city was more important.

#4:  We voted to move the West Main Street Streetscape Project ahead.  This project had been stalled for decades.  The new street will at long last make biking safe on a crucial corridor.  It will modernize utilities, quadruple tree canopy coverage, beautify the corridor, and widen sidewalks, making West Main Street, in the long-term, a destination like the Downtown Mall.   

#5:  We made serious progress on parking.  We presented a unified front against a threat to privatize our Water Street Garage.  We invested almost $3 million in a parcel that will allow us to expand parking downtown.  And we provided the public with a comprehensive parking plan, including the creation of a new Parking Division.

#6:  We prevented the proposed re-zoning of the Booker Hill neighborhood, protecting a historic African-American neighborhood from increased gentrification.  We allocated $80,000 to the rehabilitation of the historic Daughters of Zion cemetery, which tells an important chapter of Charlottesville’s history—that of our robust African-American middle-class.  And we created the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race and Public Spaces, which produced a thorough and thoughtful report that we’ll be discussing tonight.

#7:  We became the first Virginia city to require that city agencies register voters on-line.  In a time when the right to vote is under systemic assault, measures like this will expand the franchise while bringing innovation to the basic functions of a democracy.

#8:  We voted to create a new Open Data Policy.  This was an important step for both transparency and innovation that will make all city data machine-readable and allow folks to access and mine our data, coming to new discoveries about what we’re doing well and where we can improve.

#9:  We passed a series of Memorandums of Understanding with our friends in Albemarle County.  These covered the environment, transit and transportation, redevelopment, and education, committing our governments to a new era of regionalism in an era where we’re all seeking efficiency and collaboration.

#10:  We passed new governing procedures for our meetings.  Among other benefits, we brought work sessions that were previously held off camera into the public eye, and we focused our agendas and deliberations on action, rather than just talk.  Together, these steps have led to more engaging, efficient, and effective meetings. 

So it’s been a good year. 

But not for everyone. 

When I was at former Vice-Mayor Holly Edwards’ memorial service last week, I was painfully reminded of the fact that for Holly and for many others, Charlottesville can feel like a city that is leaving our most needy neighbors behind.  Hearing all of these accolades and accomplishments, some folks might still be thinking, “That’s all great.  But I feel like folks are getting squeezed out, that they’re not comfortable in a changing city.”

The plain fact is that Charlottesville is in demand right now.  That means that a lot of our assets are also in demand, from housing to parking to infrastructure.  And as any college student in Econ 101 will tell you, when there isn’t enough supply, the cost increases. 

While this is a problem that many declining cities would love to have, it has real human costs, and it will present us with many challenges.  I can’t tell you there will be easy solutions.  What I can tell you that over the next year, we will try our best.  We will listen, and we will learn, and we will ask our staff and our stakeholders alike to come to us with the best ideas for increasing opportunity equity and—and in a way that’s responsible to our taxpayers and our budget.

I want to begin by putting one big idea on the table.  I believe we should explore the benefits of doubling our contribution to the Affordable Housing Fund.  We currently spend about $1.6 million a year on this Fund, and we have invested in the resources we need to take the program to the next level.  We have a new director, a new housing study, and a new strategic plan on the way.  We’re in a great place to redouble our commitment. 

One of my proudest moments this year was recognizing and thanking Khizr and Ghazala Khan for their service and patriotism.

During that wonderful experience, I thought a lot about why they resonated so powerfully with this nation.  I believe it had to do with their authenticity.

As our city grows and changes, it will become even more urgent that we understand and love one another, despite our differences.  That we rejoice in our community.  As bad as our politics is, my experience as Mayor gives me faith that there’s no problem we can’t solve without working together. 

This week in Washington, I’m painfully aware that we’ll be inaugurating not only a new president, but a style of politics that traffics in stereotypes and in coarse, even vulgar language that demeans the nation envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.

Some say fight fire with fire.  I say (and this is definitely not original), when they go low, we go high. 

When I think of one word that captures where we are, and where we should go, it’s pluralism. The fact is that nobody has a monopoly on the truth.  Cities, like people, must keep learning.  And we must recognize that difference—of opinion, of ideas, of people—is the key to our common strength.

In today’s politics, it’s not just citizens who are under siege.  Elected officials can also become a target.  I’ll confess that as a first-time office-holder, it has been a somewhat surreal experience to hear some of the stereotypes that people have hurled and me and my colleagues. 

I don’t tend to talk much about myself in public.  So many of you may not know that I was born in India to a single mother.  My birth father died while she was pregnant.  My birth name is Atri.  It’s the name of an ancient Indian prophet, and that’s the name I was known by until the 7th grade.  We came back to the U.S. when I was two, when my dad adopted me, along with his whole, wonderful, boisterous New York/New Jersey family. 

I’m proud of my Jewish heritage, but I also heard my first hurtful ethnic slur when I was in elementary school.  I attended majority-minority public high schools, where my closest friends were black, Pakistani, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and Peruvian.  My father was afflicted with a serious lifelong illness when I was in ninth grade that prevented him from working, so my family spent many years in the grips of deep economic stress and anxiety.  I have both a first cousin and a sister-in-law who are African-American.  My sister and her wonderful wife are social workers who have two amazing daughters. 

These things don’t make me anything other than completely ordinary—in that I don’t fit into categories easily, and that I have often felt like an outsider.  

The reason I love Charlottesville so very much is that I feel completely at home here.  I believe our embrace of authenticity, and of uniqueness, is what makes our community so uniquely wonderful.  And I believe this is reflected in your elected officials.

I see it in Wes Bellamy, who grew up in public housing and who’s now earning a Ph.D., and who’s a uniquely passionate and charismatic fighter for social and racial justice. 

I see it in Kristin Szakos, whose father was a professor of African-American studies, who trained and practiced as a journalist and who’s one of the most skilled community organizers I know. 

I see it in Bob Fenwick, a U.S. Army veteran trained by the Jesuits at Georgetown, who’s a small businessman and poet who speaks to the heart and soul of our neighborhoods. 

I see it in Kathy Galvin, an architect originally from the rough and tough town of Brockton who brings both passion and rigor to every project she touches.  

We don’t get it right all the time, but we are definitely trying our best. 

But we don’t make Charlottesville a World-Class City.  You do.  It’s you who we wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night thinking about.  Because it’s you who make this such a remarkable, such a challenging, such an inspiring, and such a truly World-Class City to serve.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for the honor, and the privilege, of being your Mayor.

Mike's most recent newsletter

It’s been an exciting few months in Charlottesville.  In this installment of my occasional newsletter, I wanted to give you a few recent updates from my time as Mayor of this remarkable city. (As always, you can unsubscribe from this list at the bottom of this email).

Recognizing the Khans: Like millions, I was appalled by Donald Trump’s attacks on Charlottesville area residents Khizr and Ghazala Khan.  I was very proud when they graciously appeared to accept a unanimous proclamation from City Council recognizing their courage.  I later wrote an essay for the Richmond Times-Dispatch explaining my view that their words resonated because they exemplify the pluralism we value so deeply in C’ville.

Our Creative Economy:  As Mayor, one of my top priorities is building and sustaining our creative economy.  We recently received the wonderful news that Entrepreneur Magazine designated us the #4 city in the U.S. for entrepreneurs, and we welcomed my former boss and friend Senator Mark Warner to town for a roundtable with my Mayor’s Advisory Council on Innovation and Technology.  And I also enjoyed holding a Creative Economy Fundraiser for my friend Jane Dittmar, our Democratic candidate for the 5th Congressional District.

Council on Virginia’s Future:  In keeping with this work, Governor McAuliffe recently appointed me to the Council on Virginia’s Future, a bipartisan board including the leadership of both Virginia’s House and Senate that works on a range of strategic and government performance initiatives, including workforce development.

Open Data Policy:  To enhance the accessibility of my office, I instituted open office hours upon becoming mayor.  In my very first office hour, a citizen came to see me about adopting an open data policy in Charlottesville.  It was a great idea, and with the help of my colleagues, staff, and community stakeholders, we recently passed a resolution that will create an Open Data Policy for Charlottesville

Restoration of Voting Rights: Voting rights have been under attack in Virginia and around the country.  Governor Terry McAuliffe has courageously acted to restore the rights of thousands of Virginians.  But many have become confused and intimidated by the attacks on the Governor's actions.  For that reason, Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy and I will be hosting Kelly Thomasson Mercer, Virginia’s Secretary of the Commonwealth, for a Voting Education and Restoration Assembly on October 5 from 4:15-5:30 p.m. in downtown C'ville.  You can see more information on Facebook here.

Online Voting:  Along these lines, I was delighted when we became Virginia’s first city to pass a resolution that will require City agencies to register voters online through Governor Terry McAuliffe’s new online voting portal.

Creating Affordable Housing:  While we’re lucky to have a dynamic economy in Charlottesville, it means we need to work even harder to create more affordable housing.  That's why we recently allocated almost half a million dollars to Habitat for Humanity to help finance more affordable “sweat equity” homes here.

Protecting Historic Neighborhoods:  As we grow, we also need to stand by our historic neighborhoods and native residents.  I was proud of our unanimous refusal to rezone as commercial a traditional African-American residential neighborhood.  After years of delay, we also passed a measure starting a “code audit” that will allow us to overhaul our zoning code, and a new “Streets that Work” zoning amendment that will make our streets more walkable and bikeable.   

Confederate Statues:  Earlier this year, we created a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces to address a controversy over Confederate statues.  The Commission, which will deliver a report to Council in December, has received national coverage from Politico Magazine for its holistic, creative mission, which focuses not just on any one statue, but on how we can change the narrative in C’ville by telling the full story of race through our public spaces. 

Reducing Gun Violence:  Finally, I have joined Mayors Against Illegal Guns to focus on measures we can take in our cities to practically reduce gun violence.

Recognitions.  Finally, while I certainly can't take credit for this, Charlottesville continues to gain national accolades as one of the country's best places to live.  The New York Post named us the country's #3 best place to live, and our renowned City Market was ranked among the nation's 5 best farmer's markets.  Not too shabby!

As always, I value your friendship and support, and am deeply grateful for the opportunity to serve the public.  Please don't ever hesitate to reach out to me at mike@mikesigner.com.

All the best,

Mike
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Mayor Mike Signer
City of Charlottesville
A World-Class City
www.charlottesville.org

Governor Terry McAuliffe Appoints Mike to Council on Virginia's Future

Governor McAuliffe has appointed Mayor Mike Signer to the Council on Virginia's Future, which is charged with providing long-term strategy and analysis on issues including the economy, education, and government transparency.  Mike told NBC 29, “The biggest thing that I'll be looking to do is bring some of the lessons that we have here from Charlottesville on the economy, innovation, education, transparency, bring them to the state level. But there's a lot I'm hoping to learn also there."

See the NBC 29 coverage here: http://www.nbc29.com/story/32471007/mayor-signer-appointed-to-council-on-virginias-future

Mike's First 100 Days

Mike sent out the following update to campaign supporters to highlight some of the great work City Council has done in its first hundred days in office:

I hope this finds you doing well.  I recently hit my first 100 days as the new Mayor of Charlottesville and thought it would be a good occasion to send the first of an occasional series of newsletters to friends.
 
It’s been a whirlwind three months, to say the least.  As you know, I ran for office to build One Charlottesville.  In my first meeting as Mayor, I spoke about how we needed to address the cynicism we see too often today with results, how our Council could be a model of deliberation and responsiveness for our community. With your help, we’ve been doing exactly that.
 
The highlight of these 100 days by far has been serving with my four colleagues: Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy and Councilors Kathy Galvin, Kristin Szakos, and Bob Fenwick.  While we don’t always agree, we have been collegial and constructive and have found a striking degree of consensus on some challenging issues by working together and compromising.
 
Along those lines, I’m extremely proud of what we’ve done in these first 100 days, including:
 
§  The appointment of Charlottesville's first African-American Police Chief, Alfred S. Thomas, Jr. 

§  A balanced $162 million budget that maintains our AAA-bond rating, increases our public schools by almost $2 million while making some overdue spending cuts and holding the line on real estate taxes
 
§  A City-County Cooperation Initiative, unanimously supported by both Charlottesville City Council and the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, including memorandums of understanding on four areas: the environment, pre-K, and career and technical education, transit and transportation, and redevelopment and public housing.
 
§  A unanimous condemnation resolution regarding the blighted Landmark Hotel on the Downtown Mall, which has already led to intensive and constructive negotiations about getting construction underway soon.
 
§  Comprehensive new governing procedures for Council that have led to more efficient, constructive, and transparent meetings, including moving work sessions into the public eye in regular Council meetings and opening public comment slots to phone and email reservations
 
§  Passage of the long-awaited West Main Street zoning ordinance, which lowers building heights for the sake of historic preservation, increases building set-backs for walkability, and increases bike infrastructure
 
§  Unanimous passage of the long-awaited $10 million West Main Streetscape project, which will make bike lanes safer, sidewalks wider, increase tree cover, increase parking, and make the street a destination corridor
 
In addition, I’m proud of several initiatives I’ve launched as Mayor, including:
 
§   Open monthly office hours on the first Thursday of every month, which have been packed with citizens sharing ideas and experiences

§  Community forums such as the one recently held at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
 
§  A new Mayor’s Fellows Program launched in collaboration with the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy
 
§  The new Mayor’s Advisory Council on Innovation and Technology, a group of local entrepreneurs, investors, and policy leaders to help shape our strategy for strengthening the technology ecosystem
 
I’ve also addressed a wide range of groups in Charlottesville, including the Tom-Tom Founders Festival, the Rotary Club, the Virginia Local Government Managers Association, the Big Read, the Virginia Building Code Officials Association, the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and First Baptist Church.
 
I can only hope the remaining twenty-one months of my term will be as exciting and rewarding as the first three!

Thank you, as always, for your support,
Mike