Front Royal charter amendment fails in Richmond

The Warren Sentinel
FRONT ROYAL, Feb. 5 — Until Tuesday, town officials had no real answer for how or why the charter amendments they sent to Richmond in December never made it the Virginia House of Delegates for a vote.
Language the council had crafted to move the town’s elections from May to November and to specify that the elections remain nonpartisan were removed from House Bill 2051 before it was presented to the House committee on Counties, Cities and Towns.
New language, specifically allowing candidates for council to be nominated by political party and moving town elections to November of odd years was added to the bill. The move to a November 2015 election would extend the terms of the council and mayor by 18 months. Webert’s office has not returned inquiries on who authored the new paragraphs.
Though questions remain about the who and how, the why is clear after Del. Todd Gilbert (R-15) sent HB 2051 back to committee Feb. 5, effectively killing it.
In a statement, Gilbert said that “the unfortunate rhetoric that emerged” from some members of the town council “after the bill was altered proved that there was another agenda at work.”
When he did not receive a response from Webert for more than a week, Mayor Tim Darr sent an email to members of the House Privileges and Elections Committee on Jan. 31, urging them to restore the language
“It almost leads me to believe that Del. Webert has decided to impose his own political preference over the will of the people he represents,” Darr wrote. “This action concerns me deeply and leaves me with the impression that he has clearly taken his own personal interest in this matter over that of the citizens he represents.”
On Tuesday, Darr said if all three representatives “want to sit down and discuss this with the council in an open forum, I’d be willing to do that.”
Town Attorney Doug Napier sent an email to Del. Beverly Sherwood on Monday asking the language be restored.
Napier wrote that HB 2051 was “gratuitously and unwelcomely changed once it got to Richmond.”
“[It] is directly violative of the will of the people of Front Royal . . . violates notions of fair play and all notions of local government being bottom-up government,” Napier said. “It is top-down, cram-it-down your throat, big centralized government for the benefit of the few rather than for the many.”
It was the nonpartisan clause in the proposed change that Gilbert objected to, saying he had been lead to believe that the move to November was “the most important part of this proposal.”
“My job, and that of my colleagues, is to protect the liberties of all the people we represent in the conduct of public elections, not just the self-interest of a few select politicians,” Gilbert said. “While I appreciate that there are a number of reasons why some town officials may want to protect themselves from the possibility of a future election challenge, I cannot in good conscience vote to disenfranchise thousands of Democrats and Republicans who live in the town by supporting the changes requested by a majority of the council.”
At a special meeting Monday night, the council authorized Town Attorney Doug Napier to draft a letter asking Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-26) or Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-27) to either restore the original language to the bill or to quash it in the Senate. Councilman Tom Sayre abstained from the vote and Councilman Daryl Funk voted against the resolution.
Gilbert said he was “disappointed” that members of the council went public with their desire to see the substitute language in HB 2051 defeated as the move to November would have “saved taxpayer money and made elections more convenient,”
In 2012 Gilbert voted to allow the Town of Leesburg to hold nonpartisan elections.
Gilbert didn’t say if he would vote for a bill originating in the Senate this year that would make the City of Salem’s elections nonpartisan.
One of the main concerns the council had in declaring the town’s elections nonpartisan are the provisions of the Hatch Act. According to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, state and federal employees “may not be candidates for public office in a partisan election, may not use official authority or influence to interfere with or affect the results of an election or nomination; or directly or indirectly coerce, attempt to coerce, command, or advise a state or local officer or employee to pay, lend, or contribute anything of value to a party, committee, organization, agency, or person for political purposes.”
Former South River Supervisor Scott Weinberg, elected in 2003, later got a job with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and was prevented from running for re-election in 2007.
As for the number of federal facilities in Warren County such as U.S. Customs, ATF and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute — as well as the many commuters who work for the federal government — Gilbert said “there are lots of folks who have employers who may take issue with them running for public office.”
“That doesn’t mean we should disenfranchise everyone else’s desire to seek their party’s nomination in order to accommodate them,” Gilbert said. “I don’t know when anyone has ever run as a party candidate in a town election so the bigger question is why did they want to do this in the first place if it has never been a problem.”
Councilman Daryl Funk, who voted against the charter amendment on Nov. 26 of last year saying he was “very concerned that it will not pass the General Assembly as put forward,” said he wasn’t surprised by the proceedings.
In a statement Tuesday, Funk said it was “just a gut reaction” and that after a contentious redistricting last year, he thought that “conflict over political nominations and the timing of elections might attract attention from legislators.”
“Unfortunately, the end result is what I said was my concern in the beginning — that we are back at square one with no results to show for it,” Funk said.
Vice Mayor Shae Parker, who first noticed the missing paragraphs on the General Assembly’s website, still wondered why the language was removed without the town being told about it.
“Gilbert is right that there was another agenda at work in light of the fact that the bill was altered before it was even presented,” Parker said Tuesday. “If [Gilbert is] so worried about liberties, all we were asking for is the same liberties granted to other communities.”
The trouble, Parker said, was that by deleting the language entirely, town elections would have moved to June by default.
“They realized they had to put something back in to keep that from happening,” Parker said. “It’s fairly obvious, from Gilbert’s comments, that he was representing the will of a few, rather than what those elected to serve the Town of Front Royal had expressed.”
Moving the town’s elections to November became a hot topic in local politics in the fall of 2010, following the ouster of former Town Manager Mike Graham.
Two citizen-lead groups, Save Our Town and the Coalition for Ethical Candidates for Front Royal Now lead the push, largely to increase voter turnout, which has been low for town elections for many years.
A council vote to change the elections to November in June 2011 failed when Darr broke a 3-3 tie in favor of staying in May.
A citizen-lead effort to change the elections to November did not collect enough signatures to get a referendum on the ballot.
Since then, the state board of elections has made it clear that towns that don’t move to November will have to pay for the costs associated with holding an election.
The council spent six months reviewing the charter and discussing the changes to the election last year.
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