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