On the evening of July 10 as the sun set over Amherst, Town Council voted to remove one of its own — and town residents have been in the dark since as to the reason why.
Janice Wheaton, who was serving on council at the time, before a closed session had just publicly stated her frustrations with her role in the decision-making processes as an elected town official and claimed she was being shut out. She had made such statements in a previous meeting, an obvious rift appearing to widen between herself and her then-colleagues.
After the council convened in open session July 10, councilors Rachel Carton, Ken Watts, Sarah Ogden and Kenneth Bunch voted for her removal and have not given a reason. Mayor Dwayne Tuggle, who doesn’t vote during meetings, also has not said why the expulsion was triggered. Wheaton, who voted against ousting herself, has not divulged details of why council took such an unusual step but has said she didn’t believe the move was justified.
Council has remained tight-lipped and has not responded to further requests for comment on the matter.
After council sought a special election for the vacant seat, only Wheaton filed to run. Unless a write-in candidate mounts enough votes to topple her on Nov. 5, she is poised to regain the post she won with 511 votes in November 2018.
Wheaton was a newcomer to town leadership, a point she repeatedly emphasized during her seven months on the council, and said she spent the past 30 years volunteering for various organizations in Amherst and Nelson counties and the Charlottesville area.
“ … I looked forward to working as a public servant for our community,” Wheaton said in an email to the New Era-Progress. “While speaking with our citizens, the recurring piece of advice that was given to me upon winning the election was to ask questions. I did just that.”
Tuggle said during an Aug. 14 meeting council wasn’t commenting about the removal decision because divulging the content of a closed session on a personnel matter violates the town’s code of ethics. Town officials have stressed the move, which has drawn some public backlash, is legal and the town’s best interest was given much consideration, but officials have not commented on what met the threshold for removing an elected official.
Some have said they felt the expulsion undercut the democratic process. Ann Hubbard, a town resident, presented a petition in August seeking to have the town charter provision allowing council to remove one of its own nixed.
The town has not said if it will move forward in amending its charter allowing an expulsion of an elected official only by two-third of council’s vote. Hubbard said she is concerned if voters send Wheaton send back into office council once again expel her if it so chooses without stating why.
She doesn’t want to see it happen again and has said she believes initiating a recall through the electoral process would be more appropriate.
“It frightens me because it means I am not being governed by a democratic town council, but rather a group that wields power as they choose, with no concern for what the voters want,” Hubbard said of council having the ability to expel an official elected by the people.
Wheaton said she respects Hubbard’s efforts and has not signed the petition because she wants to research the process, hopefully with council, for getting a change to the town charter accomplished.
“The provision allowing council to remove members must be revised,” Wheaton said. “If elected, I welcome the Amherst Town Council in joining me in facilitating getting this provision changed. In doing so, I believe this will demonstrate to the public that the council and town leaders are willing to work with me as we move forward.”
Wheaton has said her goal in seeking office again is to finish the job voters duly elected her to do and she has no agenda other than representing them.
“If I am elected, I look forward to a positive working relationship with council,” Wheaton said.
Amherst resident Sharon Turner is serving the seat in an interim capacity. When the results of the Nov. 5 election are certified the newly elected council representative will take office, Town Manager Sara Carter has said.
Hubbard said she believes Amherst voters will send a message at the polls voicing their disapproval with council’s decision by solidly backing Wheaton.
“One of the things I believe as an American is that our elections should mean something,” Hubbard said. “I have never missed an election since I turned 18, and it has always made me feel like I am truly participating and that I have a real voice in how my government is run. Allowing [four] people to overturn the will of 511 voters tramples that belief.”
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.