Two days after Amherst Town Council voted to remove an elected member from its ranks, some area residents are criticizing the move they said undermines the electoral process while town officials in a statement called the matter a “difficult decision.”
On a 4-1 vote following a closed session Wednesday night, council voted to expel Janice Wheaton, who was seven months into her first term and in recent meetings openly voiced frustrations to council members that she wasn’t properly receiving information on town matters. She voted against her expulsion, and earlier in the evening in a tense exchange with council members publicly said she felt disrespected and “shut down” from serving as an effective leader.
Town council members and Mayor Dwayne Tuggle all refused comment when reached after the meeting.
In a statement Friday issued through Town Manager Sara Carter, the town said: “This decision was not made lightly, or quickly, or without understanding how serious and difficult this would be. While we understand the confusion and concern on the part of the voters, and the desire for an explanation, one cannot be offered. To do so would violate the requirements of the closed session and the Code of the Ethics of the Council.”
The statement said while council strives for transparency, it wishes “to speak only in ways that promote the common public interest of our beautiful town.”
“The action that was taken was properly performed, according to [the town’s charter],” the town said, adding all members are elected at-large rather than by district so all voters still are represented. “Town Council will continue to work on the business of the Town and seating a full Council as soon as possible.”
Carter said in a previous interview the vote was taken seriously and should speak for itself, adding there have been times in the past when council members worked out disagreements among themselves.
A section of the town’s charter allows for expulsion of a member if there is concurrence of two-thirds of council, according to the town. Tom Berry, the town’s attorney, and Carter could not immediately provide the exact year the section of code allowing expulsion was enacted, and Berry said in an interview Friday the charter has been amended in past years and can be again if council so chooses to request a change from the Virginia General Assembly.
Berry, who referred to the situation involving Wheaton as “a misfortune,” said he found nothing in Virginia state code to prohibit council from expelling a member. When asked if he is confident the vote would hold up if legally challenged, he said: “Yes, I do. But you never know, I’ll leave it at that.”
Some in Amherst expressed surprise about the move. Amherst County Administrator Dean Rodgers said: “I never knew that was possible” and later added the county board of supervisors’ bylaws do not contain such a section.
Amherst County Board of Supervisors member Claudia Tucker said she was shocked to learn of Wheaton’s removal and doesn’t think the charter section allowing it is right. She said democracy is about working out differences among leaders elected by the people and outside of a serious legal matter involving wrongdoing or a criminal charge she would not support removing such an official.
“If the county board had that provision, I probably never would have made it through my first term,” said Tucker, who was first elected in 2009.
She said of council’s decision: “We had four people who took away a lawful election. They changed the results of that election. Just because you’re allowed to do something doesn’t mean you should. It’s not right.”
Jesse Rutherford, a Nelson County supervisor, said removing a person from public office outside of a serious offense is not how democracy and a republic works and strips the people of their say in the public process. He said diversity among public bodies and different points of view is important.
“I think it sets a terrible precedent,” Rutherford said of the decision.
Paul Kilgore, who formerly served as Amherst mayor from 2012 to 2016 and a term on council prior to that, said he’s only been to council meetings a few times since he left office and can’t speak to the “ins and outs” of current town government, but he was shocked by the move.
“I certainly hope council, in making such an unprecedented move, considered all its options first,” Kilgore said. “To usurp the electoral process, to me, is a huge step. Short of any criminal or felonious behavior, I think this is an extreme step and I can’t imagine myself taking it.”
Kilgore said he knows a lot of people in Amherst who are surprised, adding he’s known Wheaton for decades and was caught off guard by her forced exit.
Prior to going into closed session Wednesday, council cited a “personnel disciplining of specific public officers” as a reason.
Kilgore said he personally feels that doesn’t work in this situation, as Wheaton was an elected official and not an employee. He said he is among those who feel council owes the public an explanation.
“My biggest takeaway is if you’re going to do something like this you better be ready to defend it,” Kilgore said.
The Virginia Department of Elections declined to comment on the matter through a spokesperson Friday. Carter said council plans to advertise for an interim appointment in upcoming weeks and is expected to seek a special election in the Nov. 5 election for filling the remainder of the term, which is set to expire Dec. 31, 2022.
Walter Erwin, city attorney in Lynchburg, said the city has a section in its charter that allows for expelling a member in cases of malfeasance or misfeasance. He said since at least 1973, when the city hired its first full-time attorney, the measure hasn’t been used, adding he couldn’t speak to before then.
“Hopefully, we never will,” Erwin said.
State code also allows a circuit court judge to remove a public official under certain circumstances, Erwin said. He said other than Lynchburg and Amherst, he’s only aware of one other locality in the state — Richmond — that has a charter section for expelling elected officials.
“You can’t do it because you don’t like that person or they annoy you,” Erwin said of the provision in Lynchburg’s charter. “It has to be a serious matter. It would have to be a significant matter.”
He said a public body could give a pubic statement or remark about expelling a member but he would advise carefully worded language so a defamation of character lawsuit wouldn’t arise out of it. The person removed also could run for office again, Erwin said.
“The local governing body doesn’t have the ability to prevent someone from running for office,” if that person hasn’t committed a felony, he said.
Berry described Tuggle and council members Rachel Carton, Kenneth Bunch, Sarah Ogden and Kenneth Watts as a “very conscientious” group who put a lot of effort and consideration into the move.
“It pulled on everybody, as far as I can tell,” Berry said. “It’s tough.”
Tucker said she feels the decision is not good for Amherst and she recalls an “unfriendly era” in her tenure on the board that has improved.
“I was on the receiving end of that and the giving side of that,” Tucker said. “I’m there for one reason and one reason only — the citizens of Amherst County.”She said she feels council needs to fully explain its action.
“Quite frankly, I think they owe it to themselves,” Tucker said. “That’s the only way it’s going to heal. ... I think they missed the mark on this one.”