AMHERST — As a resident of the town of Amherst, Ann Hubbard said she has taken part in every local election since she moved there more than four years ago.
“I had always assumed my vote mattered,” Hubbard said to Amherst Town Council on Wednesday. “Imagine my surprise when I found out my vote was overturned by the actions of the town council.”
Hubbard presented the council a petition seeking a change to the town’s charter allowing for the expulsion of elected town council representatives following the removal of former councilwoman Janice Wheaton on July 10. Council voted 4-1 after a closed session to expel Wheaton for reasons the town has not disclosed. Wheaton, an Amherst native who has filed to run for the at-large seat again in a Nov. 5 special election, was first elected to a four-year term in November.
Hubbard, addressing council during the citizen comments period of Wednesday’s meeting, said she gathered 71 signatures, 56 from the town or nearby areas of Amherst, in an online petition that requests the council seek action from the Virginia General Assembly that would prevent it from removing elected members.
Hubbard said she doesn’t blame council, as it ousted Wheaton under it’s legal right through the charter provision. That language is what she feels should be removed, she said. Council removing a duly elected official is a “bit undemocratic,” she said, and she suggests if a similar situation arises again, council should seek a recall process so voters can determine if removal is necessary for reasons given.
Wheaton, who opposed the vote to remove her in her final moments on council last month, received 511 votes, more votes than three town officials who voted for her removal — Vice Mayor Rachel Carton and council members Sarah Ogden and Kenneth Bunch. She and Councilman Ken Watts, as the two who received the highest vote totals, were elected to four-year terms while the other three were elected to two-year terms as part of a process to stagger the council term limits.
The town’s charter allows for expelling an elected council representative with concurrence of two-thirds of council’s vote but does not state grounds for why such a measure could be taken. Mayor Dwayne Tuggle, who doesn’t vote on council matters except for highly unusual circumstances, and Carton, Watts, Bunch and Ogden all have declined to comment on why Wheaton was removed, citing a closed session discussion and council’s code of ethics policy.
“As it is now, four people apparently made a decision to overturn the will of 511 voters,” Hubbard said. “And I don’t think that’s how things should be in a democratic nation.”
Wheaton also has declined to go into specifics about why she was ousted. She did not attend the meeting Wednesday, saying in a prior interview she did not wish to be a distraction, and has said she is seeking reelection because she wants to finish the job voters elected to her to do.
Amherst resident Jason Eagle said he has no problem with removing Wheaton for a valid reason but the voters are at a disadvantage not knowing more.
“We are now an uninformed electorate because we don’t know the reasons behind the dismissal,” Eagle said.
He asked what happens if Wheaton is elected and if the town would go through the same process again without giving a reason.
“We have no reason not to vote for her because we don’t know why she was dismissed,” Eagle said.
Barry Thompson, a town resident, referred to Wheaton’s removal as inappropriate. He also criticized the town for recently buying a former restaurant to convert into a new police station and spending more money rather than using the former town hall for police headquarters, and for buying a park site on Scott’s Hill Road without holding any public input sessions.
Thompson described the park site as isolated, prone to flooding and not a good town investment. Wheaton also expressed concerns with the park site while on council and asked continuous questions about future uses at the property neighboring Amherst County High School.
“This is not a case of where if you buy it, they will come,” Thompson said to council. “I think the only way they come is in your dreams.”
Tuggle said in prepared remarks Wednesday council has the best interests of the town and its residents in mind.
“The actions that have been taken are legal and ethical and while we know there are those who do not agree with them, they were in all ways, legal and ethical decisions,” he said before a packed room of residents.
Council on Aug. 7 appointed Sharon Turner to fill the seat in an interim capacity until the results of the Nov. 5 election are certified. Turner, who took part in her first meeting Wednesday, said shortly after the appointment vote she could not commit to deciding yet if she will run.
“We know there are citizens of the town that are not happy with this decision, and that there are some that are not happy with us,” Tuggle said of removing Wheaton. “We know that you want more information. The concern of council about our obligation to maintain our code of ethics has put us in a very problematic position in regard to satisfying the very real and reasonable desire for information. It has been a hard road to walk the past month.”
Council has stayed true to handling the matter with “the highest level of legal and ethical” behavior, Tuggle said.
“It would have been easier on council’s part to say more,” Tuggle said. “However, that would have been a violation of the council’s code of ethics. We ask for your patience, your grace and your prayers for the town.”
Watts said after the meeting he appreciated Hubbard’s comments and based on his review of the petition earlier Wednesday, about 19 who signed were registered town voters. He said most are from outside the town while some didn’t provide their address.
“Of course, we will review it further since Ms. Hubbard is a town citizen and registered voter,” Watts said of her request.
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.