Reflections on 2017

(This piece appeared on Medium.com on January 2, 2018).

I turned 45 yesterday. As a New Year’s Baby, January 1 is full of wildly different memories for me. Now, instead of late-night parties and hangovers the next day, there are images of kids with balloons, the small victory of reaching midnight itself— and reflections on the once-in-a-lifetime experience of serving as mayor of Charlottesville since January of 2016.

I just put my twin boys down to bed. As I sit here writing this, my mind is full of the memories of my whirlwind time as mayor. My first thought is of the families and loved ones of those who died on August 12 — Heather Heyer, Jay Cullen, and Berke Bates. Their New Year will be so much different from mine, and my heart aches for them.

In the aftermath of our “Summer of Hate,” which included a torch-lit rally by white supremacists at Emancipation Park in May, a KKK rally in July, and the “Unite the Right” rally on August 11 and 12, it’s been a difficult year for Charlottesville, and a hard one for those of us on City Council.

I have spoken many times about my own outrage, fury, disappointment, sadness, and regret for what we were forced to endure, and for the many failures of our city and state governments documented in recent investigations.

I’m glad that we have taken some firm actions to strengthen ourselves, from taking legal action against six paramilitary groups to prevent them from threatening Charlottesville again; to launching an independent investigationhighlighting dozens of reforms that need to be enacted, later included in our City Manager’s comprehensive security work plan; to overhauling our event permitting process to enhance public safety.

Half-way through my four-year term on City Council, I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish in many other areas. In a turbulent time where virtually every public body receives withering criticism, much of it online, I’m comforted by the belief that our decisions will ultimately change lives and this community for the better, whether it’s someone living in an affordable new home, a kid starting her first day of school, a bicyclist riding on a safe new lane, or a start-up business getting underway.

It’s in this spirit I want to share with you my perspective on this term.

We maintained several of Charlottesville’s core economic strengths, including our AAA bond rating, the lowest unemployment of any Virginia city, and multi-million dollar surpluses, which we plowed back into our budget for long-term capital projects, following best practices for cities.

It was nice to see national outfits continue to recognize the amazing qualities of a “World-Class City” (that’s our slogan), with accolades including America’s most charming cityEntrepreneur Magazine’s #4 city for entrepreneurs, and the #3 small town in America from the New York Post.

In Charlottesville, the mayor is one of five members of City Council, whose members are equally vested with making policy for the City.

I undertook several initiatives in my sole capacity as mayor, such as instituting open office hours, creating a Mayor’s Advisory Council on Innovation and Technology that included many members of our start-up and finance community, and creating a Mayor’s Fellows Program with UVA.

But far more important, I came on Council planning to work with my four colleagues and our professional staff to take concrete actions in five areas: equity, innovation, infrastructure, governance, and reconciliation. In my opinion, here are a few highlights:

Equity

o Affordable Housing: While there is so much more that needs to be done, I’m proud we acted on my proposal to double our spending on affordable housing, creating over 200 new units of affordable housing after August 12

o Public Schools: For two years in a row, we increased public school funding by millions of dollars beyond our 40% budget baseline

o Gentrification: In a time when our population has increased 12% in eight years, and housing prices are going up, we took action to slow gentrification in the Rose Hill Neighborhood (by stopping rezoning) and Woolen Mills Neighborhood (by creating a Historic Conservation District)

o Redevelopment: We dedicated $2.5 million over five years toward the long-overdue redevelopment of public housing

Infrastructure

o West Main Street: After decades, we implemented the West Main Street plan that will create safe bike lanes, quadruple the tree canopy, and add underground utilities, while lowering building heights on West Main Street

o Belmont BridgeWe took action to redesign the Belmont Bridge, including expanded bike lanes and pedestrian features

o Parking: We purchased a $2.9 million new parcel for a new parking garage downtown, protected the Water Street Garage from privatization, and created a new Parking Division and parking strategy.

Governance

o Voting: I worked with outside groups, staff, and my colleagues to make Charlottesville the first city in Virginia to require public agencies to register voters online

o Regionalism: We implemented a regionalism plan with Albemarle County including enacting five memorandums of understanding on key policy areas: pre-K and vocational learning; the natural environment; transit and transportation; housing and redevelopment; and economic development.

o Efficiency Study and Strategy Dashboard: Shortly after our term started, we commissioned the first efficiency study in years, which led to reforms including a new strategy dashboard where the public can measure our progress.

Innovation

o Tech Sector: We expanded our technology tax credit from 5 to 7 years, putting Charlottesville in first rank of Virginia cities for supporting the creative economy (this was a special project of mine discussed many times by the members of the Advisory Council on Innovation and Technology)

o Small Business Fee Cut: After I first proposed the idea years ago, we cutbusiness and professional license fees for over 400 business grossing between $50,000 and $100,000 a year

o Driverless Cars: Another initiative with members of the Advisory Council, we launched the “Driverless Future: Asking the Big Questions” Conference with the UVA Provost’s Office

o Open Data: After a constituent proposed the idea to me in my first open office hours, we created an Open Data Policy to allow people to hack our data and find out where we should improve

Reconciliation

o Daughters of Zion Cemetery: After the idea was brought to me by local leadership, we helped to rehabilitate the Daughters of Zion cemetery with a special allocation of $80,000 grant from Council’s Strategic Fund

o Race and Public Spaces: We implemented several policies suggested by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces, including: Renaming and redesigning Emancipation and Justice Parks; giving $900,000 to the African-American Heritage Center; reinstituting the Drewary Brown Bridge Builders Award; and reconvening the Dialogue on Race

o Immigration and Refugees: Just days after President Trump announced his “Muslim ban” in January, I brought together my friend Khizr Khan, faith, and University leaders to declare our resistance to religious intolerance and fear-mongering. Over 700 people joined in a celebration of love and pluralism. Council later gave $10,000 to the Legal Aid Justice Center to represent immigrants and helped create Welcoming Greater Charlottesville.

None of these actions were destined to happen. On the contrary, they all took research, alliances, collegiality, and political will. In an age of increasing cynicism about government, they testify to government’s capacity to serve the people and to deliver.

All in all, it’s been an incredibly eventful two years. Even on the most trying days, it’s always been a privilege of a lifetime to serve what I believe is truly one of the greatest cities in the world.

And while I appreciate those who have said they would like for me to continue serving as Mayor, I came into office with a keen appreciation for the virtues of Charlottesville’s longstanding tradition of mayors serving a single term. I intend to maintain that tradition tonight when we select a new Mayor.

I’m not going anywhere. I’ll continue to serve Charlottesville on the dais (just not from the center seat) as a member of Council. As always, please don’t hesitate to contact me with ideas or feedback at msigner@charlottesville.orgor (434) 970–3113. Thank you.