It was no secret that today’s hearing on a petition to remove Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy from office was going to be continued, but that didn’t prevent more than four dozen people from showing up in Charlottesville Circuit Court, most of them Bellamy supporters.
The petition with 527 signatures gathered by right-wing activist Jason Kessler was filed February 16, and Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Rick Moore said state statute required a hearing within five days.
Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Doucette, who was appointed special prosecutor in the case February 18, filed a motion to continue, and Bellamy’s attorney, Pam Starsia, filed a demurrer to toss the case February 21.
Removing elected officials from office in Virginia is difficult—and rare. “Quite frankly, it’s a legal matter that doesn’t come up often,” said Moore.
The judge also warned those in the courtroom that the case was one where “emotions run high,” and he was going to demand respectful and calm conduct.
Doucette said in his 33 years of practicing law, this is the third recall he’s handled, and that’s probably two more than any other attorney in the state. Most notably, he was appointed special prosecutor in the 2013 unsuccessful effort to remove former Albemarle supervisor Chris Dumler after he was convicted of sexual battery.
“I’m not representing a party,” said Doucette. “I’m representing the law.” He said he was happy to talk to anyone who had facts about the case, and he intended to interview petitioner Kessler after the hearing.
Kessler, who unearthed controversial and offensive tweets Bellamy made before he took office on City Council in 2016, contends Bellamy misused his office when he changed his Twitter account to ViceMayorWesB and the old tweets showed up under that name.
He also takes issue with Bellamy’s call to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee, which Kessler said “is of ethnic significance to Southern white people” at a press conference last week. And he cited Bellamy taking part in a boycott of UVA lecturer Doug Muir’s Bella restaurant after Muir compared Black Lives Matter to the KKK as another misuse of office.
Starsia argues in the demurrer that Kessler’s petition does not cite facts supporting his allegation of misuse of office under the law, and that it has not been signed by the required number of registered voters who cast ballots in the 2015 election in which Bellamy was elected.
Virginia Code says the petition must be signed by 10 percent of those who voted in that election, which, according to the city registrar, were 15,798. Starsia maintains he needs 10 percent of the total votes cast. Kessler says he’s been advised he needs 527 signatures.
Doucette arrived in town early to speak with the registrar, he said. “This is going to be a priority item.”
The parties will provide a status to the judge as early as tomorrow or by next week.
Outside the courthouse, Bellamy said, “I want to make sure they handle this properly.” He acknowledged that Kessler had a right to seek his removal because that’s “the democratic process,” and stressed he bore no ill will toward Kessler.
Kessler has complained that some of the opposition, including Showing Up for Racial Justice, a group to which Starsia belongs, have labeled him a “white nationalist.”
When asked about that characterization, Bellamy said, “That’s up to them. I don’t get into the name calling.”
He added, “I can promise I’m going to continue to have a smile on my face.”
Starsia was less sanguine, and said, “I am not as amicable as Mr. Bellamy.” She noted that conduct before taking office cannot be used as a reason to remove an elected official, and called Kessler’s claim “specious.”
Said Starsia, “We believe the law is on Mr. Bellamy’s side.”