Pandemic’s ripple effects continue as city manager announces resignation

City manager Eric Campbell at a Harrisonburg City Council meeting on Sept. 24, 2019. (File photo)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

Citing a need to restore a more sustainable work-life balance, Harrisonburg City Manager Eric Campbell announced Monday he will resign at the end of the year. 

His decision now creates some uncertainty about the top ranks of city government, which Campbell had presided over for the last three years and nine months. It’s also another reminder of the many ways in which the pandemic has caused chain reactions through communities. 

Campbell said in an interview with The Citizen the pandemic has made him think about slowing down and taking a pause from the stress of city management. 

“The past 18 months have been challenging overall for everyone, and unfortunately city managers aren’t immune to that stress,” Campbell said. “It’s a challenging position anyway, but you put an 18-month pandemic on top of it, and you get to the point where you have to start questioning what’s important — work-life balance and all of those things. There is never a good time for a leadership change, but you try to look for the best time to do it.”

The city’s spokesman, Michael Parks, said in a press release that conversations about filling the city manager position will take place later, underscoring the suddenness of Campbell’s announcement. Campbell’s last day with the city will be Dec. 31.

Campbell, a Virginia native, became Harrisonburg’s city manager in January 2018 after serving as the assistant city manager in Dallas. Since then, he has been at the helm during the debate over the new high school and its ultimate approval, as well as discussions over regulating AirBnBs and scooters, changes in recycling and trash collection and overall fiscal management. 

But nothing compared to challenges the pandemic created by disrupting nearly every facet of city life. 

“For the past several months, I’ve been thinking about how to get some normality, as much as I could, back into my life,” Campbell. “This ended up being the best time, I thought, to go ahead and do it.”

Campbell’s job as city manager called for overseeing the various departments that make the city go: public works, water lines, sewers, police, the buses, city roads, fire and public safety — just to name a few. Nearly all were affected in some way as the pandemic forced closures of schools, businesses, and public places for people’s safety. That prompted city staffing changes — both in the ways employees worked and because of financial restraints. The city’s restaurant and lodging tax revenue took a hits dropping 24.5% and 42.3%, respectively, and taking a $6 million chunk out of the 2020-2021 budget. 

Still, the city had to keep functioning, and it was Campbell’s ultimate responsibility to make sure Harrisonburg’s city government delivered its services, especially at a time when people were more isolated from each other and forced into quarantine. 

Campbell said he is proud of how city staff responded to the pandemic.

“Everybody stepped up, and came up with creative ideas,” he said. “Of course we had to cut the budget, and we had to cut out capital projects that we had scheduled to work on. We had to eliminate a lot of our part-time positions to keep things moving ahead. We really did what we had to do to make sure that services were maintained in the community.” 

The last few years hasn’t just been reacting and playing defense. During Campbell’s tenure, the city has undergone studies of parking and housing affordability. And the city council — which sets policies that Campbell must implement and enforce — has begun to address affordable housing with approvals of some developments and adding a new residential zone classification for denser housing.      

“When I came in there we’re a lot of issues about housing, downtown businesses, and challenges,” Campbell said. “I think now we have data to substantiate where we need to go, and we have a roadmap with our comprehensive housing assessment.”

Campbell says he is also proud of taking the city’s general bond obligation rating from AA to AA+, which is the second highest rating municipalities can receive. 

Mayor Deanna Reed responded to The Citizen with a statement regarding Campbell’s departure, saying, “City Council appreciates Eric’s service to the City of Harrisonburg. We wish him the best as he moves into the next stage of his career.”

When asked if he felt the burnout that has been reported in recent months by so many Americans as the pandemic seems never ending, he said he is striving for a better balance. 

“I wouldn’t say its burnout, but I would say that I think it’s an awareness of work-life balance, that you kind of have to have that sixth sense to say, ‘it’s time for you to slow down a little bit, and take a deep breath and reassess,” Campbell said. “I wouldn’t go so far as calling it burnout. But you have to take a step back and take a self evaluation and determine what the next thing is.”

Campbell said for now, he has no plans to move to another city or take another job. 

“When I say ‘take a deep breath’ I really mean ‘take a deep breath,’” Campbell said laughing. “I just want to take some time and figure some things out. I don’t have any specific plans right now, so it’s really just taking a break and doing those introspective things of ‘what comes next’ and ‘what’s the best thing for me as an individual.’”

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