In January, a group of military officers in the African nation of Gabon attempted to overthrow the elected president. In 2017, the military overthrew the president of Zimbabwe. In 2016, there were failed coups against elected leaders in Turkey, Burkina Faso and Montenegro. In 2015, there was a failed attempt to overthrow the elected president of Burundi. And that’s just the past four years. In much of the world, elections — even disputed ones, as many of these were —don’t count for much. It’s a good thing we don’t live in places like that, right? And that brings us to a discussion of what has recently transpired in the town of Amherst.
It takes a lot of a town government in Virginia to make the news. Unlike cities and counties, they don’t operate school systems or sometimes much of anything beyond zoning. Their issues are quite local, usually involving things that don’t matter much beyond the town limit sign. But the Amherst Town Council has managed to make the news — and not in a good way.
On July 10, Amherst Town Council voted to expel one of its members. Why? No one is saying. All we know from afar is that four of the council members didn’t much like the fifth one, apparently because she asked a lot of questions and had different views than the majority.
Now, we don’t know the council members involved or anything about the issues that the dissenting council member was asking about — but that also gives us the freedom to focus on the philosophical issues involved rather than the personalities. Those philosophical issues seem pretty clear: Amherst Town Council just overturned the results of an election. Janice Wheaton was not simply elected by the voters in November 2018; she got more votes than all but one other candidate — placing second in a five-candidate field. Three of the four council members who voted to oust Wheaton got fewer votes than she did in that election —in one case a lot fewer. Wheaton polled 511 votes, Sarah Beazley Ogden received 74. Both have — or should we say “had” —the same vote on council, but who had the greater mandate from voters?
Now, for Amherst Town Council to vote her off council is quite different from armed bands trying to forcibly oust an elected government —but it still seems a useful comparison through which to make the point about an election being overturned. The critical difference between a coup d’état and what Amherst did is that is that a coup is illegal and what Amherst did is quite legal.That raises the question we’ll explore today: Why is it legal?
Amherst’s town charter contains a provision that allows council to vote off any member “with concurrence of two-thirds” of the members. (That means to get to the required two-thirds, the other four council members had to agree — when means the 74 votes Ogden received to win a seat on council really did overrule the 511 votes that Wheaton won. Some of those might be the same voters, but the math still seems clarifying).
This is an unusual provision — so unusual that it ought to attract the attention of state lawmakers. Civics lesson time: In Virginia, every local government is created by the General Assembly and can do only what the legislature allows it to do, and no more. (This is that whole “Dillon Rule” thing if you want to earn some extra credit.) Local governments are much like children — they may share the same basic genes but each one is different. They have different numbers of people on their governing bodies, from three in Highland County to 11 in Virginia Beach. In Roanoke, the mayor is elected at-large. In Salem, the mayor is elected by fellow council members. Virtually all localities have a “manager” form of government, with the board setting policy and either a city manager or county administrator handling the day-to-day work. In Richmond, though, there’s a “strong mayor” form of government in which the mayor is chief executive. More to our point here, some, but not all, have provisions that allow city councils to remove council members in the event of “malfeasance.” Roanoke is one of those that allows for this.
Amherst is unusual, though, in that its council doesn’t limit the removal option to malfeasance or misfeasance or any other kind of feasance. The only requirement is a two-thirds vote. Do any other localities have this clause in their charters? The Virginia Commission on Local Government didn’t respond to our inquiry, but our own research hasn’t turned up any others. It’s safe to say that Amherst’s power is unusual, even if it turns out not to be unique.
Now, with all due to respect to Amherst, nobody much cares about the Amherst Town Council outside the Town of Amherst. But we’re dealing here with the principle of the thing: The power to overturn an election. This may be the first time this rather extraordinary power has been invoked but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous. You need not have much of an imagination to imagine all sorts of scenarios. A Democratic council wants to remove its lone Republican member. Done. A Republican council wants to excise its only Democratic member? Done. A majority-white council wants to boot its only African-American member? Done.
Elections are supposed to matter. Amherst Town Council just said they don’t — and the General Assembly, as the grantor of the town’s charter, is clearly complicit in that. The Lynchburg News & Advance has called for the General Assembly to rewrite Amherst’s charter with new language 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’d echo that, and go further: The General Assembly should look at all local government charters, to make sure there aren’t any such provisions elsewhere.
Was Wheaton being a pain in the patoot to the other council members? Maybe so. For argument’s sake, let’s assume she was. So what? Here’s another principle at stake: Local governing bodies are not like corporate boards. They are mini-legislatures. Consensus is usually a good thing — boards with constant in-fighting can’t get much done for their communities. But that consensus needs to be real. If voters elect someone who falls outside that consensus, perhaps that’s a sign that consensus isn’t as secure as some might have thought. That’s the nature of democracy: Not everybody agrees.
Do voters sometimes make mistakes and elect someone unsuited to office? Of course they do. You don’t need to look far to find such examples. But there’s a solution for this, too. It’s called the next election.