AMHERST — In a highly unusual move, Amherst Town Council voted 4-1 to expel one of its newest members, Janice Wheaton, following a closed session Wednesday night and several tense moments in recent meetings.
Wheaton, an Amherst native, was elected to a four-year term in November 2018 and began serving in January. A newcomer to Amherst town government, she has voiced frustrations with her role in the town’s decision-making in recent meetings, claiming she felt cut down and rendered ineffective. At one point during a June 12 meeting, she was in tears as she spoke and walked out of the meeting before it concluded.
The town’s charter has language that says council can expel a member “with concurrence of two-thirds” of council, but the charter does not state a reason as to why. Mayor Dwayne Tuggle in an email immediately following the meeting said he isn’t commenting on the matter and deferred questions to Town Manager Sara Carter.
Carter said Thursday she wasn’t immediately aware of any other time a council member had been expelled.
Wheaton’s profile under council’s section on the town’s website was removed Thursday. Carter said council members would not be commenting on the matter.
Council members Kenneth Watts, Rachel Carton, Kenneth Bunch and Sarah Ogden, who also took office in January, voted to oust Wheaton.
Wheaton opposed the measure. Tuggle, as mayor, doesn’t vote during meetings except in a rare occasion to act as a tie-breaker.
Watts, Carton, Bunch and Ogden all declined to comment when reached Thursday.
Watts, who worked several decades in law enforcement in Amherst prior to his retirement in 2011, said he does not recall any previous time in his employment and service to the town a council member was expelled.
“I don’t know what to say,” Wheaton said in tears during a phone interview Thursday. “I would like for the community to know I tried to do all I could for them. I’m disappointed that I am no longer able to do so.”
Carter said she isn’t aware of any other towns in Virginia having similar provisions in their charters to expel an elected member. While she said she couldn’t speak to specifics of council’s decision, the town’s attorney, Tom Berry, assured council it was on solid legal footing to move forward.
A former member of the Appomattox County Board of Supervisors who served a four-year term as an elected official prior to starting her position in Amherst in January 2018, Carter said she had not observed a similar move happening in the handful of localities she has served or worked at in her career of more than 20 years.
“Clearly, this isn’t something we do all the time,” Carter said. “It is something I would say is unusual. ... It should speak about the seriousness [of the matter] to people.”
Wheaton received 510 votes in the November general election and had more votes than three of the members who voted to expel her in an election that saw all seats up for grabs. Watts, council’s current longest-serving member and a former Amherst police chief, had 599 votes.
When asked what the town wants the residents who backed Wheaton to know about what transpired Wednesday, Carter said: “The answer is there will be another election.”
Council will begin advertising for an interim member to appoint; a special election for the remainder of Wheaton’s term is expected to come in the Nov. 5 general election, according to Carter.
Wheaton has consistently asked technical questions as the town has moved forward with plans to begin using a seven-acre park on Scott’s Hill Road near Amherst County High School. At a council meeting last month, she voiced anger when Tuggle decided to send the park matter from the committee’s review to Carter for the purpose of presenting a full report before council’s consideration since the committee was split on how to proceed.
Wheaton told Tuggle at the meeting she felt he “cut me off at my knees” on the park matter and voiced overall frustrations. “This for me is embarrassing. ... I just feel like I can’t do anything,” Wheaton vented during the June 12 meeting.
Those tensions boiled over in Wednesday’s meeting prior to the closed session. Wheaton told members she felt disrespected as she raised concerns with the park’s location.
“I’m trying to do my best for the community, to get questions answered, and I’m not getting answers,” Wheaton said at Wednesday’s meeting. “I get shut down.”
Wheaton added: “There’s more pixie dust in this town hall than Disney.”
“I’m offended by that,” Ogden said to Wheaton.
When asked for more meaning behind the exchange, Wheaton deferred to council members.
Wheaton was speaking during a portion of the meeting generally reserved for council comments. Tuggle, who usually gives members ample time to finish their thoughts, raised his tone after Wheaton spoke Wednesday while cutting short her remarks.
Prior to joining the council Wheaton said one of her goals was to improve communication between residents and council. At the June 12 meeting, she said she would not stop voicing her opinions and speaking with residents about town matters.
“I have no agenda for myself. I will not stop speaking to people in the community,” Wheaton told council June 12. “I will not stop voicing my opinions to voters. ... I’m sorry to my community. If I keep getting shut down the way I have been, I’m not going to be an effective leader to them.”
Wheaton said Thursday she has tried to be a transparent member of council but she felt like she didn’t properly have information in making decisions.
“We very much appreciate her involvement ... and we are thankful for her concern and care for the town,” Carter said.
The term of the seat Wheaton held expires Dec. 31, 2022.
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.