City Hall beset by recent staff departures

City Hall beset by recent staff departures

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

As Alexandria Department of Transportation and Environmental Services Director Rich Baier became the latest high-profile city staffer to depart the Port City this month, officials sought to dispel any notion that City Hall is suffering from a “brain drain.”

Baier took a job as director of public works in Sumter County, Fla. This year the city has also seen the retirement of Deputy City Manager Michele Evans, longtime Planning Director Faroll Hamer and the departure of spokesman Tony Castrilli.

In January, then-Alexandria Fire Chief Adam Thiel announced he was leaving the Port City for a position in Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration.

In an interview with the Times, city manager Rashad Young acknowledged the city has lost many employees with a deep understanding of the intricacies of local projects and policy. But with many of the resignations coming in the summer months, officials are not scrambling, he said.

“They’ve both worked in the city for some time — Rich for 15 years and Faroll for six or seven — and have been involved in some pretty critical things for the city,” Young said. “But they both were thoughtful about the timing of their departure: summer, when we’re not in session legislatively and there are fewer community night-time meetings.”

Karl Moritz, another long-time staffer, will hold Hamer’s position until a new planning director is appointed. Young said the city will conduct a nationwide search for the next head of transportation and environmental services, but he will restructure his own office to make up for Evans’ retirement.

Residents were mixed in their opinion on what the vacancies mean for city government. Poul Hertel believes the turnover is a result of the occasionally acrimonious state of relations between residents and government officials.

“There’s inner turmoil in the city, and it’s causing a lot of tension and frictions and that does have consequences,” Hertel said. “[It] does concern me about the loss of institutional memory. … If you go back 10 years or so, hardly anyone remembers what happened, why it happened or what the law is, so from an institutional perspective, it’s a problem.”

Other residents said they were less concerned with the recent departures than with how officials plan to find replacements. Kathryn Papp said it’s easy for a new hire to simply check archived city files to brush up on long-running issues. Still, that doesn’t necessarily equate to truly understanding Alexandria’s quirks.

“Having lived through numerous corporate re-organizations, I can testify that very little of importance is lost in staff turnover; the key documents are always kept,” Papp said. “I remain concerned about replacements and [whether they are a] good fit. Someone from [San Francisco], Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, Denver and other big western spaces might not bring what a densely built, historic … cash-limited city needs.”

And Bob Wood said that perhaps it’s time for new perspectives in City Hall.

“I think it’s just the natural order of things,” Wood said. “I don’t see anything untoward going on. We could use some new insight, some new attention to these details. That’s more important than just sticking with [the old guard] just for the sake of it.”

Young admitted he will miss Baier particularly as staff weigh its options in dealing with Dominion Virginia Power’s proposal to build a 230-kilovolt transmission line through the Port City. Baier was notably pointed in his questions to Dominion representatives when they testified before city council last month.

“Absolutely I’ll miss him on that, he was our point person,” Young said with a chuckle. “I was looking forward to him handling and managing at least the day-to-day interaction of that, both with the work groups we put together as well as in conversations directly with Dominion.”