An election, in which citizens select their representatives to govern in their names, is the foundation stone of our democratic republic. Taking part in one is, we would argue, the most important duty of a citizen of this nation.
That’s why what happened last week at the July 10 meeting of the Amherst Town Council is so disturbing to us. Four of the five council members voted to nullify the results of the Nov. 6, 2018, election for Town Council when, out of the blue, they voted to expel one of their colleagues without any public explanation at all.
Amazingly, it was all done by the book, or rather by the town charter, which states that four-fifths of Town Council can vote to expel any member. The charter doesn’t spell out any reasons, thus leaving that up to the whims of council. We think the General Assembly should take a hard look at that in the upcoming session.
No one can recall any Amherst council expelling one of its own in the town’s history. But that’s exactly what happened this month.
Councilor Janice Wheaton, a longtime town resident but a newcomer to politics, was elected to council last November with 511 votes, the second-highest of any of the five candidates. When running for office last year, she said her top priority, if elected, would be to focus on transparency in the operations of the town government and Town Council and to work for better communications between town hall and the public.
Once she was sworn into office in January, Wheaton adhered to her platform. No question, asked on behalf of the public, was too trivial or too controversial for her to ask. One topic she came back to time and again was the establishment of a 7-acre park in the town. Of concern to her were the site’s relative isolation at the end of a narrow road, potential flooding, utility placement and surveys. She wanted the town to slow down the process of constructing the park, although the town has already bought the tract for $35,000 from a local developer.
We don’t know why council voted to expel her, as they won’t say. But is it possible Wheaton’s four colleagues and Mayor Dwayne Tuggle grew tired of her questions and her advocacy for transparency and accountability? At the end of the July 10 meeting, council entered a closed session, citing §2.2-3711.A.1 of the Code of Virginia dealing with exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, saying they needed to discuss “disciplining of specific public officers.”
The charters of many Virginia towns and cities, which must be approved by the General Assembly, include provisions for removal of elected members of the governing body. The charter of the City of Lynchburg, for example, has such a provision but only on the grounds of malfeasance or misfeasance.
The charter of the Town of Amherst — last amended by the Assembly in 2018 — however, gives carte blanche to council members to expel a colleague for any reason or no reason at all.
It is time that changed. Amherst councilors have demonstrated they simply cannot be entrusted with the awesome power to nullify an election with no explanation whatsoever to the public.
We urge state Sen. Mark Peake and Del. Ronnie Campbell, who represent town residents in the General Assembly, to introduce legislation in the 2020 session that either would strip council of the power to expel a member or would enumerate the grounds upon which such a decision could be made.
We rarely advocate for Richmond to get involved in local governing, but this egregious action must be addressed.