An Amherst councilwoman who was expelled from council last summer, then reelected a few months later, was unsuccessful in initiating a process to change the town’s charter last week to prevent a similar move from happening again.
Janice Wheaton cast the only vote in favor of changing the charter during Amherst Town Council’s May 13 meeting, while councilors Kenneth Bunch, Ken Watts, Sarah Ogden and Rachel Carton opposed. The provision paved the way for Wheaton’s July 2019 expulsion from council following a closed meeting where details of the conflicts she has had with other town officials were discussed, and several months later she was voted back into office during a special election.
“I believe the provision in our town charter, as it stands, allowing removal of a council member with two-thirds of a vote subverts the will of our voters, our democratic government,” Wheaton said. “I don’t see a need for it to be there.”
She also spoke in favor of council explaining to the public why removal of an elected official would be necessary, which currently is not spelled out in the provision’s language. Wheaton described the provision as “not acceptable.”
“We are dealing with the principle of the matter, the power to overturn an election,” Wheaton said.
Mayor Dwayne Tuggle said the constitutions of the commonwealth of Virginia and the United States, as well about a dozen other towns in the state, carry a provision for removing elected officials.
“It’s certainly not unconstitutional,” Councilman Ken Watts said to Wheaton.
Wheaton said in response to Watts: “Do you think it’s the right thing to do for our community?”
Watts replied to Wheaton: “I do.”
Amending the town’s charter requires approval from the Virginia General Assembly following a petition from council.
Reached for comment after the meeting, Carton said in an email it is important the charter provision remains because it ensures “a level of accountability not only to the citizens that voted for a particular councilor, but also that each council member is accountable to each other by conducting themselves in a manner that is professional, honorable, and filled with integrity.”
“If a council member conducts themselves in a manner that violates the oath in which they swore to uphold for town government and the best interest of all citizens of the town, and is hindering, controlling, or manipulating town government from being able to conduct its business for the people, then that councilor has become a liability to the best interest of the town and not an asset,” Carton said. “If this were to happen, the responsibility to rectify that liability falls to the remaining elected officials to protect both the town government and the interest of the people that voted them into that honorable seat.”
She said she is thinking about future councils and town officials in keeping the provision in place, adding it allows for checks and balances among equally elected peers for accountability to town residents and voters.
Carton said at the May 13 meeting the charter provision protects the town government from any councilor “that could be potentially dangerous to the well-being of town business, town government and the town itself.”
“This has been in the charter for a reason, to protect the interests of the citizens of the town from any particular councilor that may get in these council chambers and abuse their responsibility and authority for the future as well,” Carton said during the meeting.
Councilman Kenneth Bunch, in an email after the meeting, referred to the charter provision allowing expulsion as a “level of accountability for all of us, and for all future councilors.”
“There isn’t a single one of us that doesn’t wish we hadn’t needed it in the past, and we certainly don’t relish the idea of using it again; however, that doesn’t mean it should be removed,” Bunch said in an email. “To remove accountability and consequences for behavior unfitting of this position would be reckless and irresponsible, and far from the best interest of the Town as a whole.”
Bunch also said a petition seeking to remove the expulsion provision in the charter, which circulated in the weeks following Wheaton’s removal, drew fewer than 20 signatures from town residents. “That’s less than 1% of the town population, and that speaks volumes,” he added.
Bunch said in the email that since Wheaton returned to council in November 2019 she has disrupted town business and he fears the town may lose staff as a result.
Bunch asked Wheaton during the meeting to explain why she many times votes “no” on town matters, particularly a crucial sewer improvement project required by the state.
“You say you’re here for the best interest of the community but some of the things that you vote no on are pretty cut and dry in the best interest of the community,” Bunch told Wheaton at the May 13 meeting.
Wheaton said she has voted in opposition to the majority of council 22 times since her first stint in office from January to July of last year, and November through the present, but declined to say why. When asked by the New Era-Progress after the meeting why she voted against the sewer project, she said: “I have to feel comfortable putting my name, which means my community’s name, on something” and in that case she didn’t feel she was.
Tuggle also took issue with a recent email exchange Wheaton sent to town officials and staffs that referred to him and told her she doesn’t speak on his behalf. Wheaton quickly apologized.
Wheaton said after the meeting she is disappointed for the community her motion did not pass, but she will move forward and do the best she can for town residents.
“I did what my voters elected me to do,” Wheaton said. “.. I believe the community knows I care for them. I do not want to let my community down. I owe it to the voters. They voted for me twice for a reason.”
Reach Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.