The petition to remove Albemarle County Supervisor Chris Dumler from office will be scrutinized in court next Tuesday, despite the fact that the Office of the Registrar has yet to verify the more than 580 signatures gathered by opponents of the embattled official, who plead guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery earlier this year after being arrested in 2012 for forcible sodomy.
Scottsville resident Earl Smith organized the petition effort, turning to a rarely referenced state statute that allows voters to ask a judge to force elected officials out of office by gathering the signatures of 10 percent of the total number of voters in the last election in the official’s precinct. That meant Smith and those who helped him crisscross southern Albemarle in search of support in recent weeks needed 372 registered Scottsville voters. Smith wanted a buffer of extra names—in part because history has shown petitioning for removal of an official isn’t easy. In fact, no one can point to a successful removal petition in recent state history.
Nobody’s even attempted it in Albemarle in recent decades, said County Circuit Court Clerk Debra Shipp, who has worked for the court for nearly forty years. “Never,” she said.
Just what would happen after Smith turned the petition in to the court Tuesday was cause for some confusion among officials and media this week. Shipp’s office originally told reporters that Judge Cheryl Higgins had 10 days to see that the signatures were verified by County Registrar Jake Washburne and his staff before serving Dumler with the petition and setting a hearing date to examine the removal argument. Then came the announcement of the hearing, and word that the verification process was on hold.
That’s not what the State Board of Elections had said to expect, said Washburne, but then, “the exact, specific procedure is not spelled out in the code,” he said.
What is spelled out in Virginia state code § 24.2-233 are the specific instances that can lead to an official being forced to step down—and they’re very limited: certain marijuana misdemeanors, hate crimes, and “For neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties when that neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties has a material adverse effect upon the conduct of the office.”
That’s the one Smith worded his petition to emphasize. He doesn’t know if it will pass muster in court, but he says he needed to try.
“I am not a political person,” Smith said Thursday. “I didn’t do this for any reason other than that I thought it was the right thing.” He said he feels for Dumler, who is now serving a 30-day sentence on weekends. Smith thought the 27-year-old had done a good job as a Supervisor, but he doesn’t think Dumler’s claim that what’s happened in his personal life won’t affect his leadership rings true.
“You took the trust and the faith and the energy of the public and you threw it away for a bad choice in your personal life,” he said. “You are the person who’s supposed to make their hopes and dreams come true in the county they live in. For the three or four years that you’ve promised to do that, you should be a model person.”