By Gus Cross
Buena Vista mayor-elect Bill Fitzgerald is ready for a new city manager.
In an interview on Wednesday, Fitzgerald said that it is time “for the city to move forward,” suggesting several changes, including the replacement of Jay Scudder with a new city manager.
“I really feel now is the time,” Fitzgerald said.” When the Rockbridge Report asked him in a video interview if those changes start with a new city manager, Fitzgerald nodded yes, saying, “Mm-hmm.”
This was news to Scudder, who said he did not realize that Fitzgerald wanted to bring in a new city manager. After his initial response to Fitzgerald’s statement, Scudder said that he serves at the will of the city council.
“That is the way this works in this business,” said Scudder.
Fitzgerald, whose large win over Mayor Larry F. Tolley on Nov. 7 surprised many, including Fitzgerald, does not have the power to remove Scudder. Buena Vista operates on a “strong manager” system that gives little power to an elected mayor. Removing the city manager would take a majority vote by the City Council, which starting next month will have two new members and a vacancy left by Fitzgerald’s becoming mayor. It would also require meeting the terms of Scudder’s contract for a separation.
Scudder was hired by Buena Vista as city manager in 2011, a couple of years after it became apparent the city was having trouble paying off a loan on the Vista Links Golf Course.
In a 2012 interview, Scudder said that “accurate budgeting and being realistic” were things that the city council and manager had to focus on when addressing paying off the loan.
However, attempts to alleviate the burden of the loan payments have not come to fruition and the city decided to default on the payments. Now Scudder’s performance is being called into question.
Originally stating he was neutral on the statement, Scudder followed-up in a later conversation that he was surprised both by the statement and by Fitzgerald making the statement in a studio interview.
“That is so crazy,” Scudder said.
Danny Staton, one of the two men elected to the city council for the first time last month, said that he doesn’t have enough information on the situation to have an opinion. He said he has heard both pros and cons about Scudder but is not nearly ready to make a decision either way. He added that changes did need to be made to the city and finding a new city manager “may be one of them.”
City Council Member John Dyer, who will be leaving the city council at the end of the month, said he didn’t think it would be appropriate to comment. However, he did say with the large change in city council, it would be tough to say what the new city council will do, if anything, about the city manager position.
Incoming City Council member Tyson Cooper, who won as a write-in candidate, said that this was not the first time he heard about the possibility of replacing Scudder. He said he met with Fitzgerald a few weeks ago so they could get to know one another as they prepare to work together and to answer some of Cooper’s questions.
During their discussion, he said, the topic turned to possible changes and reviews of the city when Fitzgerald told him the city manager position is something he would like the city council to look over next year. Cooper said he does not have an opinion on the position because he doesn’t know enough about the situation but does think the city council will be professional about it either way.
“I believe that whatever happens, there will be a good process of review and evaluation of the state of the city.”
City council members Tim Petrie and Stephen Baldridge were unavailable for comment. City Council member Melvin Henson, who was re-elected last month, declined to comment on the topic.
Scudder currently holds an on-going contract with the city. This means that Scudder’s contract does not come up for review. He previously held a renewed three-year contract with the city but in 2016, the City Council city council gave him the on-going contract. According to Scudder, should the city council decide to end the contract with Scudder, it would need to pay him six months’ severance.