Three weeks in, Lynchburg’s new city manager said he’s still using a GPS to get around town, but he knows his way to and from work — and that’s a start.
Wynter Benda was appointed by Lynchburg City Council in May and began in his role as city manager at the onset of August, the culmination of a fraught search that lasted almost a year and a half and left the city without a permanent city manager for about 11 months.
Formerly the chief deputy city manager for Norfolk, Benda said he’s had an incredible reception here and is spending the first several weeks meeting with internal city staff and public and private community leaders to learn “who people are, where things lay out and what’s important for the overall strategy of Lynchburg.”
Benda has pledged to spend the first 90 days getting to know the city.
“My message has been that I’m going to listen first,” Benda said. “Obviously, I will listen outside of those 90 days, that’s important, but particularly now, as it relates to city staff and/or stakeholders, that’s important to me.”
From meetings with county administrators in the surrounding localities, to get-togethers with the heads of public safety and local law enforcement, he said it will be three months of “trying to meet as many people as I can.”
He seems to approach situations with exuberance. Like a visit to the College Hill Water Filtration Plant, where what he assumed would be a peek into the facility and its ongoing routine maintenance, ended with him rappelling into the 10.5-million-gallon water tank alongside Lynchburg Water Resources Director Tim Mitchell.
In what Mayor MaryJane Dolan called a “baptism by fire,” in Benda’s second week, at his first city council meeting, an unprecedented situation at the Lynchburg Adult Detention Center — in which 66 inmates barricaded themselves inside a cell block — forced him to handle a major crisis on the fly.
Along with representatives from Lynchburg emergency services, he and Deputy City Manager Reid Wodicka briefed council during an unexpected closed session Tuesday night and were up into the early hours of Wednesday morning at the emergency operations center until the situation was resolved, according to authorities, without incident.
“Was that anything I would ask for on my first city council meeting?” Benda asked. “No. But what was great to see was the team at work; they really shined.”
With a strong support system in place, Wodicka said he thought Benda did a very good job, and the situation went “as best as it possibly could go.”
Dolan agreed Benda was responsive and handled the situation well, praising the Lynchburg Police Department for ensuring the situation concluded “without anyone suffering.”
Benda said he prioritizes his relationship with public safety, and said health and safety are “tantamount to a good city.”
Wodicka stepped into the role of interim city manager last September and has been helping with the transition, keeping Benda briefed and up-to-speed as he settles into the role. So far, it’s gone smoothly, Wodicka said.
New leadership often can mean new direction for a city, but one that is guided by a core of experienced, longtime staff and departmental leaders.
While that localized experience is valuable, said Wodicka, it’s also integral to have what Benda can offer — a “fresh set of eyes that can take a look and see other opportunities for us to do things better and differently than what we were ... to make us a more effective and efficient organization.”
Though Benda said it was too early to begin setting specific goals or instituting any significant changes, he has city council’s most recent budget to act a “roadmap” for the year ahead, with core city initiatives and projects outlined in its pages.
He already has begun developing a relationship with council and is working to meet with each of its seven members one on one. Soon he hopes to ride around the city’s wards with each representative, and learn about the councilors’ priorities and the direction they hope to take the city in the coming years.
Dolan is thrilled with the trajectory of Benda’s first three weeks.
“Wynter has gone above and beyond to make sure that he is meeting all of the right people, the stakeholders, the leaders, the staff,” Dolan said.
Impressed by Benda’s ability to listen and communicate, Dolan said though it’s “early in the game,” he has the qualifications and energy that will allow him to succeed.
“I think he wants what we all want, and that is for Lynchburg to be the best that it can be,” Dolan said.
Benda began working for the city of Norfolk more than 10 years ago. He was appointed to chief deputy city manager in 2017 after serving as deputy city manager since 2013.
He began his career in the city manager’s office as assistant to the city manager, where he worked across multiple city departments. He also served as the senior assistant city attorney for the city of Hampton, the in-house council for the Chesapeake Treasurer’s Office and served as a judicial law clerk for the 7th Judicial Circuit in Newport News.
It’s a big transition, and Wodicka said he’s looking forward to cultivating the relationship for a long time.
“I’m very excited to work with him for the next number of years ... he will lead us to accomplishing a lot of really great things,” Wodicka said. “And I look forward, personally, to being a part of it.”
Benda said what strikes him most about Lynchburg is its “momentum,” one he hopes to “lean into and help support.” With two of his daughters starting in public schools, and with his family entrenched in the moving process, he’s getting to know the city through its restaurants, its hiking trails and the people he works with.
His short-term goal? Getting to meetings on time — with or without GPS.
“My message has been that I’m going to listen first. Obviously, I will listen outside of those 90 days, that’s important, but particularly now, as it relates to city staff and/or stakeholders, that’s important to me.”
— Wynter Benda, Lynchburg city manager