A petition demanding the Amherst Town Council request the Virginia General Assembly amend the town’s charter to remove a section allowing council to expel an elected member is expected to be presented to council during its Aug. 14 regular meeting.
Ann Hubbard, a town resident, wrote on the online petition’s homepage she was stunned when she heard council voted 4-1 at its July 10 meeting to expel Janice Wheaton, who was elected to an at-large seat with 511 votes last November. Mayor Dwayne Tuggle and councilors Rachel Carton, Ken Watts, Sarah Ogden and Kenneth Bunch have not given reasons for Wheaton’s removal and have declined comment.
The town said in a July 12 statement the “difficult” move was given serious review but reasons could not be given, citing a closed session and council’s ethics code. Hubbard referred to Wheaton’s ousting as “undemocratic and unacceptable” and wrote she plans to attend council’s Aug. 14 regular meeting to present the petition.
“The charter of our town should not permit a small group to override the will of the voters,” she wrote on the petition’s homepage. “… If they wish for a member to be removed, they should be required to issue a recall petition, with the reasons for the removal request spelled out.”
Meanwhile, council has called a special meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7 for the purpose of holding interviews for appointing an interim member to serve until a Nov. 5 special election is held. The interviews will be held in open session, according to Town Manager Sara Carter.
As of Monday’s application deadline, one resident — Sharon Turner — applied. A North Main Street resident of 22 years and a manager at Hill Hardware Corporation in Amherst, she wrote in her application she hopes her more than two decades of business experience will be an asset.
“In this moment in time, I believe that the Town of Amherst is in a unique situation, perhaps not even our finest moment,” Turner wrote in the Aug. 1 application letter. “Town Council is in a state of transition. Because of the changes that have transpired, there is clearly division among the citizens of this incredible Town we call Amherst ... It is my hope that once again we can be united and move forward as a community so future generations treasure this Town as much as we do.”
Hubbard’s goal is for the petition to gather 50 signatures. As of noon Tuesday, 14 people had signed.
“I too have never heard of an elected official, even in a small town, being treated this way!” Mary-Jane W. Puckett wrote along with her signature.
Darlene Tucker, who also signed, wrote she was stunned to learn “that my vote didn’t really matter.”
For the town’s charter to change, council needs to formally petition the General Assembly, according to Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, who represents Amherst.
Wheaton has filed to run for the seat again during the Nov. 5 special election. She has not elaborated on council’s decision to remove her; during open meetings in June and July she expressed criticism to council for what she described as being “shut down” from serving as an effective member.
When asked by the New Era-Progress to explain her lone opposition in a series of recent 4-1 council votes, she has said she felt she didn’t have the information she needed to make an informed decision.
In her final minutes on council July 10, she questioned the reasoning behind her removal and asked if it had to do with council’s code of ethics. Tuggle, Carton and Watts said in their responses to Wheaton’s question they wouldn’t say in open session what had been discussed behind closed doors.
The council cited “personnel, disciplining of specific public officers” as a reason for a portion of the closed session.
In an interview after filing her paperwork to run last week, Wheaton addressed the code of ethics question she presented to council following its vote to remove her, but didn’t elaborate further.
“I have done nothing wrong,” Wheaton said. “I can stand up to anything anyone brings to me.”
She said she strives for government transparency and wants her hometown to grow and succeed in addressing why she is running again for office. Many residents don’t go to meetings and to represent them properly she said she needs answers and information to make decisions in their best interests.
“I need to be there and be their eyes and ears,” Wheaton said. “That’s what I am elected to do.”
Wheaton said she is honored by the public support she’s received in the aftermath of her expulsion. She does not plan to attend the Aug. 14 meeting.
“I don’t want to be a distraction,” Wheaton said. “This is the community’s time to address the matter.”
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.