Meeting for the first time Wednesday since its highly unusual vote to remove Janice Wheaton, who was elected to the Amherst Town Council last November, council appointed an interim member.
On a unanimous vote during a special called meeting, council selected Sharon Turner, an Amherst native and a manager at Hill Hardware Corp. in Amherst, to serve in the interim role through the Nov. 5 special election. Since she was the only applicant, council and Mayor Dwayne Tuggle did not ask Turner questions during the brief meeting that lasted less than five minutes.
Council and Tuggle have not given reasons for Wheaton’s expulsion, which came after a closed session during a July 10 meeting. The town’s charter allows for expelling a council member with concurrence of two-thirds of council’s vote but does not state criteria or grounds for why a member can be expelled.
Some in Amherst, including former mayor Paul Kilgore, who referred to council expelling one of its elected officials as “unprecedented,” have criticized the move they describe as undoing the will of voters. Wheaton, who was a newcomer to town government, received 511 votes in the Nov. 6 election, and during the later two months of her time in office had a few tense exchanges in which she indicated she was being “shut down” as a councilor.
Wheaton has filed to run for the Nov. 5 special election and has said she owes it to her community to finish the job she was elected to do. Turner addressed the controversy in an interview immediately following her appointment.
“Clearly, there is conflict and division within our community,” Turner said. “I hope I can bridge that division and bring unity to the community.”
She described her serving as a “leap of faith” and said it’s her first time entering public office. She is on the town’s seven-member appointed industrial development authority board and can serve on council at the same time because of the town’s population of just more than 2,200 residents as of the 2010 Census, according to Town Manager Sara Carter.
“I think it’s important someone step up and I feel like I can be a benefit to them, an asset to see if we can move forward,” Turner said. “That’s my concern.”
Turner has worked 22 years for Hill Hardware Corp. and said she knows how local small businesses work and feels that will be helpful to council in upcoming months.
“We love this small town and we want it to prosper,” Turner said.
She said she wants to see Amherst grow while maintaining its “quaint, small town” feel. Carter said Turner’s appointment is valid until the results of the Nov. 5 special election are certified and that person would take the seat.
Turner said at this time she is not ready to commit to running for the seat.
“I don’t know yet,” she said. “It’s not on the radar at this point.”
After the meeting, Councilman Ken Watts complimented Turner and her role in the town’s business community.
“I’m confident she will fill the gap well,” Watts said.
Addressing the backlash on Wheaton’s removal, he said he believes council expected a “bumpy ride” and residents should be assured town officials gave the matter serious consideration. The longest-serving member of the current council and a former Amherst police chief with decades of experience who grew up in Amherst, has said he could recall no other time council expelled a member.
“I don’t think anyone on this board took it lightly,” Watts said of the decision to remove Wheaton.
He said he feels council was on solid legal footing in proceeding as it did July 10.
Ann Hubbard, a town resident, has started an online petition to have a section of the town charter removed for expelling members, calling it “undemocratic and unacceptable.” As of 8 p.m. Wednesday it had 45 signatures and Hubbard said she plans to present it to council at its Aug. 14 regular meeting.
Asked his thoughts on the petition to change the charter, Watts said he is interested in hearing from town residents about it rather than from folks who live elsewhere.
“Let your opinion be known, but be from the town,” Watts said.
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.