Nearly three weeks after she was expelled by fellow Amherst Town Council members in a controversial decision, Janice Wheaton has filed to run for the seat in a Nov. 5 special election.
Wheaton, the embattled first-year town official who was ousted by four other councilors following a July 10 closed session meeting for reasons the town hasn’t explained, filed paperwork Monday to run for the vacant seat. The town filed a petition July 18 for the special election to have voters decide a replacement.
Amherst County Circuit Court Judge Michael Garrett approved the request Friday. A special election for the seat is set to coincide with the Nov. 5 general election. Amherst County Registrar Fran Brown confirmed Monday, Wheaton is the first person to file all the required paperwork to run for the town seat.
“I owe it to my community, my family, my friends and myself to complete the job I was elected to do,” Wheaton said in an email Monday.
The decision to remove her was made possible by the town’s charter, which contains language that says council can expel an elected councilor with concurrence of two-thirds of council. The decision sent shock waves throughout the Amherst community, with some criticizing the move saying it undermined the will of voters and set a bad precedent.
Wheaton, who was elected with 511 votes in the Nov. 6, 2018, election and joined council as one of two new members in January, seemed confused about the reasoning behind the highly unusual decision just after it was made, according to a recording of the final four minutes of the meeting obtained Monday by the Amherst New Era-Progress.
“Why am I being kicked off?” she asked a few minutes after council returned to open session and voted for her removal.
In the recording the town provided Monday following the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request, she further asked: “Because of the ethics that were cited?” She also asked for a state code section or some documentation for the decision to oust her.
“What we discussed in closed session stays in closed session,” said Councilwoman Rachel Carton, who motioned for the expulsion, in response.
“The vote is public,” Councilman Kenneth Watts, who seconded the motion, said to Wheaton.
“The vote is public. And that’s it,” Carton added.
“That’s it,” Mayor Dwayne Tuggle said in the recording. “And that’s all [that] will be said.”
Watts, Carton and councilors Kenneth Bunch and Sarah Ogden have not commented on the decision that, in following days, riled up more than three dozen posts on the town’s Facebook page, most criticizing the move. Tuggle, who doesn’t vote at town meetings except in rare circumstances, also declined to comment.
Carton referenced the charter’s provision in her motion to remove Wheaton, saying: “And at this time this member would be Miss Wheaton.”
When the roll call came to Wheaton, she said: “To get rid of myself? No.”
The reasoning for a portion of the closed meeting was “personnel disciplining of specific public officers.”
Wheaton said in a July 11 phone interview she was shocked and disappointed by the vote and, as of Monday, has not elaborated on the details of why she was removed. The town, in a July 12 statement, said officials could not comment further on specifics, citing closed session requirements and the town’s code of ethics.
“This decision was not made lightly, or quickly, or without understanding of how serious and difficult this would be,” the statement said.
In the July 10 meeting recording, Wheaton attempted to get an explanation from Tom Berry, the town’s attorney, on what transpired and what her next steps were. “I’m not your counsel,” he replied in the recording.
Immediately after that vote, council took another vote to hold a public hearing on leasing property in a town industrial park as part of manpower needs tied with the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline project. Wheaton asked if she could be in the room for that vote in the recording.
“At this time it’s an open meeting,” Tuggle said. “You can stay as a citizen.”
Wheaton, in recent meetings, raised questions with the town’s planned uses for a new park on Scott’s Hill Road near Amherst County High School. She raised objections during a June 12 meeting when Tuggle removed the matter from further review of a committee monitoring the project she served on and said she would keep asking questions and speaking with town residents.
The town’s code of ethics states all members shall refrain from “disclosing confidential information, taking action which benefits special interest groups at the expense of the town as a whole, expressing an opinion contrary to the official position of the council without so saying and conducting themselves in a manner so as to bring discredit upon the government of the town.”
Wheaton’s term expires in December 2022. Council plans to interview candidates in early August to appoint an interim council member by the Aug. 14 regular meeting, according to a notice on the town’s website.
Watts and Ogden said they had no comment on Wheaton running for the seat.
“I wish Miss Wheaton only the best,” Carton said in an email.
A date for that special called meeting for interviewing hasn’t been set yet, according to the town’s website.
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.