On Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, voters in the Town of Amherst elected five members to Town Council.
On Wednesday, July 10, council decided that election didn’t mean a thing, when four councilors — suddenly and without explanation— expelled one of their own, in the process making a joke of the foundation of our democratic republic.
Following a closed session, council announced Councilor Janice Wheaton had been booted from her elected post on a 4-1 vote. Councilors Kenneth Watts, Rachel Carton, Kenneth Bunch and Sarah Ogden — Wheaton cast the lone no vote — unilaterally decided to erase the election results of just eight months ago with absolutely no explanation to the public.
In November, residents cast 2,314 votes for council. Watts, the longest-serving council member, was the top vote-getter, garnering 601 votes for 26 percent. Wheaton, a newcomer to politics, pulled in 511 votes for 22.1 percent of the turnout, followed by Carton with 497 votes, Bunch with 457 and Ogden with 74.
The new council went to work in January, and almost from the start, tensions between Wheaton and the other members evidently were an issue. Disagreement surfaced as Wheaton raised questions about a seven-acre park the town is considering, including its location and the speed with which the town was moving on the matter, questions some didn’t appreciate.
During the July 10 meeting, those tensions came to a head when Wheaton, speaking during a portion of meeting reserved for councilors’ comments, took her colleagues to task over the issue. “I’m trying to do my best for the community, to get questions answered, and I’m not getting answers,” she said. “I get shut down. … There’s more pixie dust in this town hall than Disney.” Mayor Dwayne Tuggle abruptly shut off her time at the mic following that exchange.
If you’re wondering how in the world a town council could unilaterally take such an action, effectively nullifying an election, you’re not alone. It turns out the town charter provides for just such a procedure: Two-thirds of council members can expel a member, and there are no grounds enumerated for such action.
Residents want answers, and they deserve them. But town officials are maintaining an arrogant silence, aside from a brief statement issued afterward, which reads in part: “While we understand the confusion and concern on the part of 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 Ethics of the Council. Furthermore, while transparency is of the utmost importance, Council wishes to speak only in ways that promote the common public interest of our beautiful town.”
Council is proceeding as if nothing more needs be said, soliciting applications from the public for an interim appointment and scheduling a Nov. 5 special election for a replacement. What will they do if the winner of that election is someone equally as inquisitive on behalf of the public or is Wheaton herself? Overturn that vote, too?
By the way, council’s next meeting is Aug. 14 at 7 p.m.; it’s open to the public. A passage from the Old Testament Book of Hosea seems appropriate: “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”