Leaving O'Connell: Departing as Mgr to take water job

news-water-oconnell-medO'Connell has served another, more powerful water body, the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority.

Gary O'Connell says that he will leave his job as Charlottesville City manager, a post he has held for nearly 15 years, in order to take the director's role at the Albemarle County Service Authority, the body that sells water to households in the urban area.

"A few minutes ago, the Albemarle County Service Authority approved my employment as their new Executive Director effective May 1," O'Connell wrote to supporters of news that first broke on WINA radio's morning show. "I will stay on as City Manager the next 90 days until April 30. I'm excited about this opportunity, a good fit for my utility experiences over 35 years, and my passion for water and the environment."

O'Connell will be assuming the vacancy that will be left when Authority director Gary Fern departs to take a role with a private engineering firm.

Ironically, in recent years, O'Connell–- who has served since November 1995–- has encountered opposition to some of his water policies, including getting infamously overridden by his superiors on City Council in the fall of 2008 for pressing "full steam ahead" on a controversially costly community water supply plan.

"While Gary has many good qualities," says former City Councilor Kevin Lynch, "running a water system is not one of them."

Lynch is one of several former City Councilors, including Republican Rob Schilling, who says that O'Connell duped Council into a vote in favor of the water plan because it rested on the dubious notion that an alternative way to obtain water, dredging the existing Rivanna Reservoir, would cost more than a recent project to dredge the mammoth Panama Canal.

"It's puzzling," says Lynch, "unless the Albemarle County Service Authority thought he'd put them in a better position to strong-arm cost-sharing negotiations with the City. It is a County plan after all."

During a wide-ranging talk with four reporters, one of several such meetings held Thursday, O'Connell dismissed such talk as divisive and said, "We ought to all hold hands and work together."

He pointed out that the big topic when he took office was reversion–- the suggestion that Charlottesville would go out of business because its tax base supposedly wouldn't be able to keep up the demand for services–- but that several reductions in the property tax rate (from $1.11/$100 value in the early 1990s to .95/$100 today) show the prowess of his management.

"Fifteen years later," said O"Connell, "the City is probably more solid than any other city, and reversion is gone."

Reminded that his most recent budget report shows annual deficits that will swell to $11 million deficit in 2015, he concedes that City Council may need to cut services and/or raise the tax rate.

With 906 full-time employees and an annual budget of $142 million, O'Connell has grown government significantly since he assumed office with 600 employees and a budget of $57 million, but he declines to accept any suggestion that he's spent too much.

"They like to call it a progressive agenda," he said of his all-Democratic bosses on City Council, "and we're running always to keep up with that." Much of the spending, he added, was due to federal mandates.

Leaving such a large organization for one with just 67 employees and a budget of $19 million–- not mention parting with a salary of $175,000 for $125,000 at the Authority–- denies that he's taking a step down.

"I'm personally passionate about water," he said. "This gives me a chance to focus on something with depth."

O'Connell said his tenure as City Manager, the chief executive of City government, has also included an array of 10 ancillary positions. Some of them may be compensated, such as his 2003 appointment as Director of Public Safety–- and some not, such as the boards of the local airport authority, the jail authority, and the water/sewer authority.

In his new role, it appears that he'd have to leave the board of another authority, the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority. However, in recent days the future of that body–- although it recently gained $900,000 from a pair of defendants in a controversial lawsuit–- has dimmed due to decreasing revenue and the impending expiration of its life-support agreement. "It may exist for a while," he O'Connell noted, "but I think it'll get a total makeover."

A graduate of Hampden-Sydney College, O'Connell spent 14 years as Assistant City Manager under his predecessor in the Manager's post, Cole Hendrix, who served 25 years and whose tenure survived the funneling of over $11 million into the coffers of the team that developed the Omni hotel. O'Connell is no stranger to spending controversies of his own, including the $7.5 million rebricking of the Downtown Mall and City Council's split 2008 decision to pay the local YMCA to take several acres of McIntire Park.

For someone so heavily invested in water decisions, O'Connell's move puts him at the helm of the body with the least power among the three water bodies. The City of Charlottesville, which he is leaving, holds exclusive control over the Ragged Mountain Natural Area land on which a new reservoir has been proposed. Moreover, it's the City which has the right to reclaim the area's other urban system reservoirs from the second most-powerful water body, the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority, which leases the reservoirs from City Council.

–updated: 9:08am, 9:42am, 10:21am, 10:26am, 2:18pm, Friday at 4:22pm


Wouldn't have hurt my feelings if he left a decade ago. He was spineless in fighting for city employees. Cole Hendrix on the other hand, he would get up in a department head's face and fight for a good employee.

I'm concerned who Council will hire to replace Mr. O'Connell. I hope they take their time and involve the community in this decision. We now have an opportunity to hire a City Manager more in line with the professed vision of our city to: recycle, maintain, and sustain the assets that the city owns, and save taxpayer dollars by repairing the infrastructure we own with sustainable technologies.

Time to hire a Manager with a 21st century skill set.

Why would this be so hard to believe, City Resident? He will have a full time job with a rather healthy salary and benefits, and a full pension from the City of Charlottesville. A lot of people are doing this nowadays.

Are you sure this isn't an April Fools Joke--on no it's January.

"O’Connell tenure as City Manager"

It's the right choice. With the Downtown Mall deteriorating back into a vacant shop moonscape overshadowed by the hulking derelict unbuilt hotel; with people asking why something as simple as snow removal which was done right in '96 is done wrong now, with infrastructure crumbling and no solution to our water problems nearly a decade after a crippling drought--absentee management being to blame for all of the above--it is time for him to move on.

That's interesting that Hawes can't seem to write anything about Gary O'Connell without putting a negative spin on it. Everything has to have that weird little negative spin, getting in personal digs. Can't just ever report the facts in a neutral, non-biased way, befitting of professional journalism. Makes one wonder what must have happened to cause Hawes to turn on him and hold such a bitter grudge. What, did Gary once spurn his advances or something?

Wondering, while the press releases aren't going into the fine details, I am sure he would retire in order to take the new job. He would be absolutely crazy not to take retirement now.

Harding ran for sheriff while he was still employed by the police department. Then he retired to take over the Sheriff's Office after he won the election.

quote: "Regarding O’Connell’s comments above about his ââ?¬Å?passion for water and the environment””Š ROTFLMAO."

I have to agree there! If he really cared about the environment he wouldn't be driving a 4X4 SUV as a city issued vehicle.

quote: "The city’s pensions are based upon years of service..."

This is also why some people who have retired in the last decade or two make more per month on their retirement check than they were making while employed. They laugh all the way to the bank each month.

Two things:
1) I like Mr. Fountaine's idea that we should look at the structure of running our City while maybe not agreeing with his specific ideas.
2) Gary O'Connell is taking credit for the firm financial footing of Charlottesville. The truth is, even though Gary is a competent individual, the City's success is due to the outrageous increases in property values and therefore property taxes. One year my assessment went up 33%. Now that property values have leveled off the City is looking at a deficit. Also if Gary had done such a great job why are the City's property tax rates also a third higher than the County?

Well for all the reasons I don't like this deal I'm for it for one reason- he can deal with the city and knows how do get things done with democrats who think they always have all the cards. I REALLY hate to say this but it's probably a good hire for the County.

Drama makes the world go round and:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

(from As You Like It 2/7)

Anyone know if he gets to keep his legendary hefty double retirement package, even though he's leaving? Is this public information or subject to FOIA?

This is a positive move for Charlottesville. We need someone in that position who will be accountable to the citizens, not just the Chamber of Commerce, county development interests, and downtown merchants. This is a diverse city with diverse needs, and someone who understands that concept would be a much better fit. Maybe the city departments that consistently get bad ratings will finally shape up under stronger management.

Regarding O'Connell's comments above about his "passion for water and the environment"... ROTFLMAO.

Wake up Gary the City's infrastructure is crumbling; read what ratepayer wrote above, and the City owns the reservoir, it was your job both as City Manager, and a member, for over a decade, of the board of RWSA to maintain it and get it dredged, and you never did. You made lots of money, but you left a crumbling city behind --glizy on the ouside but rotten within-- and now someone will have to pick up the pieces as you continue to fight Not to maintain our largest water supply reservoir, but to let it go to waste, so you can add to your resume of new toys ( a new dam ) built at City expense--shame on you !

"Kristin Szakos made it known during the campaign that she wanted Gary gone..."
@Inside, I never saw or heard this anywhere. Can you tell us how you heard it? Did Szakos say why she was displeased with Gary's performance? If so, why? I didn't know she had any idea what he was doing. I never heard comment even in Council chambers.
"Connie, it was well known by many that there were 3 votes to force Mr. O’Connell to take retirement"
@partyinsider, did Council vote? If so, when? Did the 3 discuss this Gary and he agreed to go without collecting his severance pay?

@Downing Smith, so you're willing to give up your career to become Mayor for four years. Are you a lawyer, self-employed or retired?

@Downing Smith - where do you think the rise of property values came from? Some of it, yes, had to do with rising home values across the board and the housing market bubble, but the other half has to do with demand of the housing. Its a trickle down effect - if more people want to move to charlottesville, that creates a demand for housing, limited housing in the city means value goes up, etc. Creating a demand for people to move to cville is what he should be taking credit for. The financial footing is just a side effect of that demand.

Also...seriously? judging the property tax rates against the US average? Feel free to move to the deserts of Oklahoma and Texas. I heard that they have cheap taxes out there, and you don't have to worry about massive snowstorms. Alaska I heard was really nice. But they have a new governor, so things might be different now.

I can't wait for the public to realize that O'Connell will sorely be missed. He led the turnaround of this area from where it was in the mid 80s to present day, something that most of the recent transplants don't have a clue about because they moved here after charlottesville became a great place to live and work. I wish him luck. I also wish the new city manager good luck as well - the blogosphere and media here in cville are both ill-informed and have a love of instigating things, which I can imagine can cause great stress. There aren't many jobs where you can be called a nazi AND a communist by the same person in one breath.

I agree with Mr. Lynch; this is about the County trying to get an advantage and stick the tab for the water plan to the city, and get the citizens of Charlottesville to pay for the Nature Conservancy Moorman's River Conservancy Project. Fern was a real water manager and Mr. O'Connell is a politician. Hope the City Council is wise to what this all means and develops some backbone to protect the ratepayers

The Cville Weekly printed out the department head salaries last year in one of their issues. It's public knowledge as far as I can tell....

Now maybe we'll get a City Manager that represents the city ratepayers and not the Nature Conservancy/ County Development Water Plan. Let them destroy their own land for a new dam if that's what they want, and the city can dredge it's Reservoirs and have enough water for 100 years; just by maintaining the assets they already own.

Behind the scenes Gary always was working for county interests, now he can do it out in the open, and get paid for it.

quote: "Anyone know if he gets to keep his legendary hefty double retirement package, even though he’s leaving? Is this public information or subject to FOIA?"

I would think it's still public information.

Back in the early or middle 70s a media outlet obtained all local public employee salaries and printed them. I don't recall the media outlet that did it though.

If they were to do the same again, people simply would not believe the salaries being paid out now. Especially in the upper levels of any and all agencies.

Taking a wild guess, pure speculation, I would feel confident in saying his city retirement and continuing benefits would be another $125,000 at least.

$250,000 a year..... not bad. :)

Bottom line is, none of you are Gary O, so you can't know what his motivations were for leaving. And this isn't in defense of him either, I'm just saying. You're not him, you don't know his personal life, and that's just something to keep in mind. If there's one thing people like to do though it's gossip and speculate and assume the worst most dramatic reasons for anything that happens. The Kristin Szakos speculation is one of the most laughable in terms of gossip and people looking to invent drama. I've met Ms. Szakos, and to say she has it out for Gary, and is some sort of scary threat to him and this is why he "jumped ship" is again, just laughable. The man's been at his position now for what, 15 years? And you *seriously believe* that Kristin Szakos of all people single handedly caused him to jump ship? You gotta be kidding me. Ironically this claim was made by somebody calling themselves "insider."

People may not like Gary O and things he's done (or not done) as the City Manager, and that's fine. I'm not saying I agree with everything that's gone on either. But don't speculate and try to put yourself "on the inside" when you're not. Most of you are as far from the inside as one could be, especially those who ironically call themselves "insider," yet that doesn't seem stop anybody here from gossiping and speculating and inventing drama.

Don't know about his city pension, but his new base salary, according to the Daily Progress is $125,000.

Will O'Connell still get his retirement benefits even though he hasn't retired? He's quitting in order to pursue another job. To use Chip Harding as an example-- didn't he officially retire from the CPD, and then later run for sheriff?

This hire makes sense, ACSA didn't want a competent water manager; they wanted a puppet to do their bidding. They're intent on shoving the New Dam and South Fork Pipeline down the city's throat anyway they can--why do you think Fern left, he had enough of this board, and they needed someone to continue their hell-bent quest to get the job done. Guess they figure Gary is the man to do it, and knows how to out smart the City having all the connections inside the City.

Just like every other move the ACSA has made, to stop dredging the South Fork Reservoir for water supply, bet this one will back-fire as well . Gary is the winner, $250,000 is real money and don't forget benefits.

Just a thought, . . . but perhaps now would be a good time to reassess the actual role for a future City Manager and segue to a full-time Mayor that is directly elected by C’ville residents.

I’d much rather see the chief City administrator be a full-time ââ?¬Å?Mayor” that is directly responsible and accountable to the citizens versus a City Manager that is not directly accountable.

Not only are city employees paid some of the highest comparable salaries in the state, they have the best retirement package throughout the state, thanks to Gary O'Connell. Also, the city's budget rose 75% from 1998 to 2008. How many other government bodies can boast the same? If public infrastructure was not maintained during his tenure, it was not for the lack of money. I wish Gary well. I also wish we can hire someone out of state that will come in and bring the city back in line with other municipalities by throwing out the ridiculous slogan "A World Class City." We need a strong manager who will take a strong hand over the internal politics in city hall. We also need somebody who will get rid of the policy of stashing milllions of dollars in many little pots that remains hidden from Council until the staff wants to spend it. I want someone who will get rid of the large pot of money called "market rate adjustment" that has been used to augment employee salary without Council's oversight. Weneed someone who will run the city in a manner that is not resum© building but for city building. Garry's used to amateur bosses. I wonder how well he's going to fare with John Martin. I'll bet famously.

"If public infrastructure was not maintained during his tenure, it was not for the lack of money." Right on Cville Eye --the City was awash with money, and Gary just ignored maintenance of our infrastructure. Now we hear this at the last RWSA meeting from director Frederick:

ââ?¬Å?Wastewater costs in the future are going to have to continue to increase as we deal with an infrastructure that has been over a number of years deferred in maintenance and needs significant attention,” Frederick said.

And we know that water rates will increase as well, because of lack of maintenance of our reservoirs. Now Mr. O'Connell, in his new job, will once again try to stop that maintenance from happening by joining with John Martin to try to stop dredging. Maybe he is more qualified for this role than some observe.


"ââ?¬Å?We ought to all hold hands and work together.” Sure Gary, while they run a road thru McIntire Park, try to take money from our schools, and take over all our dams and reservoirs making us pay them for all new water and sewer infrastructure. Think again

@Frank Fountain, just curious. Who do you think that is qualified to manage a city will move to Cville in order to run for Mayor? Would you let a man off the street run your schools or even repair your car?
GO: "...but that several reductions in the property tax rate (from $1.11/$100 value in the early 1990s to .95/$100 today) show the prowess of his management" He fails to say that he cancelled Council against each and every tax rate reduction.
GO: "Much of the spending, he added, was due to federal mandates" Is he trying to convince people that the feds had mandated so much it required him to increase his staff from 600 to 900 employees - 50%? What disdain for the common sense of the public. We are not all the amateurs on Council toat believed everything that came out of his mouth.
' ââ?¬Å?They like to call it a progressive agenda,” he said of his all-Democratic bosses on City Council,...' I thought you said it was because of federal mandates. This disgusting man talks out of every orifice he has. This is exactly the kind of crap that incompetent has been spewing for years. Goodbye and good riddance.

Hey, I just updated the story based on the interview I conducted with the man himself yesterday.--hawes spencer

Kristin Szakos made it known during the campaign that she wanted Gary gone--he saw what was coming, jumped ship when he saw a lifeboat passing by. Bet there's some serious celebrating going on in the City.

Seems pretty unlikely that Gary O'Connell jumped ship because he had some fear of Kristin Szakos of all people. The only reason she even got elected was by hitching herself to Norris and she strikes me as anything but powerful. Insider to what I have to ask.

Connie, it was well known by many that there were 3 votes to force Mr. O'Connell to take retirement. I agree he saw a way to keep adding to his bank account and took it.

@Cville Eye --> I think you are missing my point.

Regular citizens currently have zero direct say over who is the primary administrator for this City; and let’s face it, our current council/mayor system isn’t the strongest form of representative government. I’d like to have more of a direct ââ?¬Å?vote” as to who the City’s primary administrator is (a real ââ?¬Å?Mayor”). I’d like you to have that ââ?¬Å?vote” as well; just we both do for Governor, President (let’s ignore the electoral college for the sake of argument), Senator, etc.

It would then be the ââ?¬Å?Mayor’s” responsibility to hire ââ?¬Å?qualified” people appropriate for the various City positions (just like the mayors of other cities do; like the Governor does, like the President does, etc.).

However, the ââ?¬Å?Mayor” would ultimately be responsible directly to the electorate (not the way our current, less than effective mayor position, is chosen). If the citizens feel the ââ?¬Å?Mayor” is not doing a good job, the citizens can elect someone else. That’s not how the current City Manager position is formatted. The City Manager currently has too much responsibility for someone that is not directly elected by the people (or ââ?¬Å?really” responsible to directly elected representatives). I know that technically the City Council is supposed to be holding the City Manager responsible, but the part time nature of the City Council is less than an effect method for handling this.

Charlottesville’s citizens deserve a ââ?¬Å?full-time” elected representative --> a real ââ?¬Å?Mayor”.

"If the citizens feel the ââ?¬Å?Mayor” is not doing a good job, the citizens can elect someone else." What if nobody wants the job?
Do we default to the unsatisfactory Mayor. Does the city continue to go downhill? What if he's arrest for fraud? If the Mayor is running the city, what do the other councilors do? Since you do not respond to my questions and just continue to express your vision of a dream world, I'll leave at this: Politicians win popularity contest. They don't have to prove that they are competent at anything. All they need is to get the people to the polls by promising some of the goodies. We already have too much of that on Council. I really don't want them trying to do the big job. that actually affects every individual in town. I want somebody who knows about employee management, financial management, equipment management, planning and public works. I want somebody who has a concept of the legalities involved in city actions. I don't want Joe, the happy hour entertainer.

No one wants the job ??

Presumably a managing Mayor would command a salary similar to a city manager with perks,pension automobile etc.

Government money in the trough ??, Don't stand in the way of the many volunteers.

Mayors are easy to evaluate and get rid of if nessesary

And who's going to leave his job for a four-yhear one? Would somebody please ANSWER? The city's pensions are based upon years of service and four years is a drop in the bucket.

@CvilleEye, ever hear of "hand writing on the wall," some things don't take a vote to get them done. I think Gary is smart enough to know which way the wind was blowing, and saw an opportunity for great money, benefits, and less work. One thing Gary does well is look out for himself.

I took Insider to mean "inside the Democratic Party" rather than "inside City Hall." Now that I think of it, it could me "insde City Council." Gossip, speculationlll that's why I asked for more information. I didn't get more info so I put no stock in it. However, I did enjoy reading it. I'm also aware that a lot things that have been said are hard to document, so it may not have been speculation, just gossip. So maybe we should say, gossip OR speculation.

Loved the way during City Council hearings O'Connell could stare down at us commoners, the Great Unwashed, the ordinary citizens sounding off, raving and jumping up and down and frothing at the mouth at the microphone --and he'd never react, never smile, never frown. Just watch intently, quietly, patiently, watch and pretend like he was listening, let us believe what we said was heard. It does make a difference when we citizens believe we are taken seriously, regardless of whether we actually are.

Halsey Minor's hotel project on the Downtown Mall passed the City Manager. WOW now Gary can do it again with The Community Water Plan!

Van De Linda RICO Lawsuit. WOW let's hope ACSA under his management does not pursue actions like another mess like that when Gary was on the RSWA.

And the Airport Authority has an airport where regional planes cannot take off with full loads. Hopefully Gary learned about phased building fiascos while on the Airport Authority.

Shortly we shall see if he learned or if in fact he was the teacher.