While Amherst Town Council has not divulged what caused the removal of former councilwoman Janice Wheaton, emails weeks and months before her July 10 expulsion show numerous tense exchanges between Wheaton and town officials.
An encounter between Wheaton and a Virginia Department of Transportation employee outlined in a string of emails points to a source of conflict during her seven-month tenure on the council.
Wheaton, who was elected for the first time last November, was expelled on a 4-1 vote. The town has said in a statement council cannot comment on its decision because doing so violates confidentiality laws in a closed session and council’s code of ethics policy. Wheaton, who voted against her removal, also has not gone into detail about what led to the move.
She is the only candidate on the ballot in a special election for the vacant seat in the Nov. 5 election, though the process is open to write-in candidates.
Dozens of emails between Wheaton, Town Manager Sara Carter, Mayor Dwayne Tuggle and other councilors from April through early July obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show frustration and disagreement in how Wheaton approached seeking to make additions to council meeting minutes and her interactions with town staff, among other issues.
Some of the dozens of emails reference repeated attempts by Wheaton to have comments she made at council written into the minutes, which other town officials advised was not needed.
Vice Mayor Rachel Carton in one email to Wheaton and other town officials wrote the sole purpose of recording meeting minutes is to capture the policy and council decisions on town business. They are not intended to express comments or personal information of an individual council member, which she added would “muddy the waters” to councilors’ own platform for personal gain, Carton wrote.
“We have never included individual comments [in minutes],” Councilman Kenneth Watts wrote in the email exchange that included Wheaton. “That could conceivably become very unmanageable very fast.”
At one point during email exchanges between council members and Carter, Watts wrote he had a “belly full” in referring to Wheaton.
“Most people sit back, watch and learn. Most people do not come in like a bull in a china shop, before they have it all figured out,” Watts wrote to Wheaton in the April 25 email.
“We [all] understand that you are new to this. It seems to us that somebody who has not a clue what is going on may be influencing you. I apologize for being so blunt, but we are all at our wits end. We are each willing to help you learn, but you are going about it the wrong way.”
In another string of email exchanges in June, Wheaton had emailed Vicki Hunt, the town’s clerk, about adding content to the minutes. Wheaton at that month’s meeting angrily protested Tuggle removing a matter involving a town park from a committee on which Wheaton served at the time because the committee was split on a recommendation.
Carter sent a June 29 email to Wheaton stating that other than corrections because of clerical mistakes or clarifications, council should make no requests for changes in the minutes directly to Hunt and asked that requests and questions come through her as the town manager rather than staff in accordance with council protocol. The type of “substantive” change Wheaton sought in how actions are recorded needs council’s approval, Carter pointed out.
“I am disappointed that this is a ‘pick and choose’ as what’s being recorded and not being recorded in the minutes,” Wheaton wrote in an email to Carter while asking who makes those decisions: “I will reply to whoever I wish, especially if it is as simple as a correction to this sort of thing.”
Email correspondence in August between a Virginia Department of Transportation representative and Tuggle obtained through a separate FOIA request to VDOT outlined another area of concern involving Wheaton. In early April, Stuart Sanders, a VDOT maintenance supervisor, met with Wheaton on Ridge Street about work needed on that road and she brought up her position on town council while pushing for work to be done immediately, according to his Aug. 7 email to Tuggle recalling the incident.
Sanders wrote to Tuggle he appreciates Wheaton’s drive to want to fix issues and make the town a great place but he feels she went about it in a “wrong and unprofessional” way in her interactions. In town-issued emails in April, Tuggle requested Wheaton meet with himself, Carton and the town’s attorney to discuss “recent concerns” brought to their attention, but she decided not to attend.
Carter wrote in an Oct. 23 email to the New Era-Progress if the meeting had been held, it would have been properly advertised and held in open session before convening in closed session, a concern Wheaton had raised. Carter wrote council has no authority over VDOT, though the town has benefited from a “productive and respectful” mutual relationship for many years. “The relationship, however, is a collaborative one rather than a chain of authority,” Carter said in the email.
Tuggle said in an Oct. 23 email to the New Era-Progress council is not involved in the daily operations of the town but is made aware of the town’s functioning by the town manager, who functions as the town’s CEO under a “strong manager” form of government through the town’s charter.
On Oct. 9, council approved a policy that states all communication from council to staff members with requests for information or assistance must go through the town manager, who would work to ensure no more than an hour per week is spent per councilor for the purpose of responding to individual issues or complaints.
When asked for a response about the emails showing friction between herself and other town leaders, Wheaton said in a statement: “It would be an honor to serve our community by being re-elected to the Amherst Town Council.”
She said she appreciates the trust and support she has been given by voters and if given another opportunity she would do her best to work with the community and council to revise the town’s charter on a matter allowing expulsions and to meet the needs of constituents.
In an Oct. 23 email to the New Era-Progress, Watts said he was “completely and utterly frustrated” with Wheaton’s refusal to take advice from Carter and fellow councilors. “Repeated offers to help Ms. Wheaton adjust or learn were rejected or ignored,” he said.
Watts wrote he was frustrated with what he described as Wheaton’s “constant attempts to manipulate and bully” Carter and some town staff, as well as attempt to monopolize Carter’s time. He said it seemed to him Wheaton seemed to be under an impression the town has control over outside agencies and she was free to make demands in the town’s name without having the authority to do so.
Some residents have criticized council for removing an elected official without explaining why. The town charter allows council to expel a member with two-thirds of vote but does not explain the threshold for what triggers such action.
The town said in a statement after Wheaton’s expulsion officials had the town’s best interest in mind and its actions were ethical and legal. Wheaton has said prior to joining council she spoke with residents and a sentiment she heard was to ask questions while in office and she did so.
A former Amherst police chief and council’s current longest-serving member, Watts said he has been affiliated with town government for more than 40 years. “I have seen a lot of mayors and councilors come and go,” Watts said of the conflict with Wheaton. “Many of those had very differing ways of thinking and conducting themselves. I have never seen behavior by any elected official even remotely similar.”