It’s extraordinarily hard to remove an elected official from office in Virginia, especially if she hasn’t been convicted of smoking pot, sexual battery or a hate crime, the offenses spelled out in state code. Nonetheless, for the second time in a year, petitioners are trying to remove a city councilor—or in this case, three city councilors.
Rise Charlottesville launched its recall last fall of all five councilors then in office. And although Kristin Szakos did not seek re-election and Bob Fenwick lost his seat in the primary, those former councilors are still on the ouster roster along with Mike Signer, Kathy Galvin and Wes Bellamy, the latter of whom whites-righter Jason Kessler unsuccessfully targeted for removal last year because of offensive tweets Bellamy made before he was in office.
Newly elected Mayor Nikuyah Walker and Vice-Mayor Heather Hill are not included in the petitions.
At a November 17 City Council meeting, Rise founder Pat Napoleon, a former teacher, cited “failed leadership, misguided action along with no action that brought this city to its knees, along with a resulting death” for wanting those on the dais gone.
Among council’s misguided actions, she lists hiring commissions and ignoring their findings, changing the name of the former Lee and Jackson parks, and Bellamy’s “hurling insults from the dais” at David Rhodes, whom Bellamy famously admonished to get his hat “and take that compromise with you.”
Says Napoleon, “This was disgusting.”
Napoleon says she’s gotten “hundreds and hundreds” of signatures, and that was before a daylong event to gather more January 19 at Riverside Lunch, where she also raised money for the families of the Virginia State troopers who died in a helicopter crash here August 12.
County resident Richard Lloyd is helping Napoleon. “When we started, we found a large component of people unhappy with Charlottesville City Council,” he says. When a group got serious about the recall, “all of a sudden people started throwing money at us.”
Lloyd declines to say how much money—other than sums ranging from $5 to $500—nor will he say exactly how many signatures.
State code calls for signatures of 10 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last election for the officeholder a petitioner wants removed. That was the stumbling block for Kessler, who fell short of the 1,580 signatures—10 percent of the 15,798 votes cast in the 2015 election— special prosecutor Mike Doucette said were required.
“We want to blow past all that,” says Lloyd.
Before he was elected Greene County commonwealth’s attorney in November, Matthew Hardin represented Rise and drew up the group’s complaints against the councilors. He urged the petitioners to get more signatures than needed to “show how many people are concerned.”
Hardin thinks Rise has a “very good chance” to prevail by “making the case about malfeasance.” He says, “It is quite clear they were violating state law by voting to remove” the Confederate monuments. “I felt this was government run amok.”
While in private practice, Hardin says he was always a “government accountability lawyer.” And it’s not the first time he’s gone after a local official. In 2015 he sued then-Albemarle commonwealth’s attorney Denise Lunsford because she said it would take $3,200 to respond to a Freedom of Information case.
Jessica Phillips, who represented former Albemarle supervisor Chris Dumler when a Scottsville District constituent petitioned to have him removed from office after he pleaded guilty to sexual battery in 2013, says, “My understanding is mine is the only one that ever went to trial.”
Says Phillips, “It’s not easy” to get rid of an elected official. Petitioners “have to show the person falls into an enumerated category and was convicted of a crime.”
For the broader category called out in the statute of “neglect of duty, misuse of office or incompetence in the performance of duties” that have a “material adverse effect upon the conduct of the office,” Phillips says, “That’s very nebulous. The person determining that is a judge. What qualifies as misuse of office?”
In the Dumler case, witnesses testified about his job performance, but the majority of the evidence, says Phillips, showed “he did his job. There was no evidence he misused his office.”
She says she doesn’t know the substance of the claims Rise Charlottesville is making about City Council, but “I know it’s going to be very difficult.”
Napoleon says she has no time limit for turning in the signatures to petition the court to remove Signer, Galvin and Bellamy. Galvin declined to comment and Bellamy did not return a phone call from C-VILLE.
“This just smells like more politics to me, from some organizers who aren’t even city residents,” says Signer. “Our job is to stay focused on our public’s business, like when we recently created over 200 new units of affordable housing, and when we sued the paramilitary groups who invaded our town to prevent them from ever coming here again.”
“I want things to get better,” says Napoleon. “There’s a whole lot to mend here. I’d like to see them listen better.”
The alleged cases against Signer, Bellamy and Galvin
Rise Charlottesville’s petitions cite alleged misuse of office for each of the councilors. Here’s what the petitioners consider misuse of office.
• Repeated disrespect for his role and its limited collaborative powers
• Public inability to work with City Manager Maurice Jones and former police chief Al Thomas
• Unilaterally making statements and public declarations without authority from City Council
• Entered into an agreement with council and can’t meet with senior city staff without another councilor present because of unilateral actions
• The agreement diminishes his ability to function effectively and diminishes the office and city
• Repeatedly has shown disrespect to citizens attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights
• Spoke disparagingly to David Rhodes and told him to take his hat “and that compromise with you”
• “Flagrantly” violated rules of order at council meetings and interrupted a meeting with “racially charged salutes”
• Violated the state’s closed meeting law August 2
• Repeatedly voiced support for the destruction and covering of Confederate memorials in violation of state code
• Failed to uphold the City Charter by allowing Signer to overstep his role as mayor
• Because of her inaction, the city was governed by “an elected official who needed to be accompanied by minders” to prevent unlawful activity
• Disregarded state code in supporting removal of Confederate memorials and covering them in tarps
• Formulated her position on the war memorials based on the Beatitudes, not state law