The Leesburg Town Council took the last bit of its meeting Tuesday night to set the process for what is expected to be a top priority at the start of the year: filling an empty seat on the council dais.
Mayor-elect Kelly Burk will resign from her current Town Council seat at year’s end and begin her two-year term as mayor Jan. 1, 2017. Since Burk’s council term will not expire until Dec. 31, 2018, a special election is required to fill the seat. In the meantime, the council will have 90 days from when the vacancy is created to fill the seat on an interim basis.
The council was in a similar position earlier this year, needing not only to fill the vacant mayor’s seat, following Kristen Umstattd’s election to the Board of Supervisors in November 2015, but also a vacant council seat after David Butler was selected to finish Umstattd’s mayoral term.
Some of those who put their hats in the ring for Butler’s unexpired term criticized the process the council used to make its selection, ultimately choosing Bruce Gemmill. The council advertised for candidates and reviewed applications prior to the special meeting called to make the appointment. During that meeting, the candidates were not asked to speak and there was no debate among council members. The procedure called for motions to nominate candidates and the first to win four votes got the seat. Gemmill was nominated first and the motion was approved. While that method was similar to past appointments, candidates and councilmembers criticized the process.
On Tuesday night, Burk said she wanted to ensure that council members and candidates have clear expectations. At her suggestion, the council directed the town staff to begin advertising to accept expressions of interest for the vacant seat, which it did today. Those interested in serving until the special election—in the spring or next November—until noon on Wednesday, Dec. 21, to submit confidential letters of interest along with a professional résumé.
After all the applications have been received, council members will individually rank the candidates. From the combined rankings of all council members, the top three candidates will be identified. The finalists will be invited to speak at the special organizational meeting on Jan. 9, 2017, to address the following questions:
- Why are you interested in filling the vacancy on Town Council?
- What unique skill set or experience do you offer?
- What do you believe are the top three priorities the Council should focus on over the next two years?
After the presentations, the council members will discuss an appointment. They may elect to go into closed session, something several current council members said they were against, preferring to discuss candidates in an open forum.
While Burk did have the support of a council majority to move forward with a new process, it did not come without some debate.
Katie Sheldon Hammler, a three-term council members who did not win re-election, recused herself from the conversation, leaving the meeting early. She has expressed interest in being considered for the interim appointment and possibly running in the special election.
Gemmill and Butler both stayed for the debate.
Butler has firmly stated, and did so again Tuesday, that he will not apply for the interim seat. Gemmill stated that he has no intention of filling the interim seat, but said if the council “decided they wanted to pull me out of [council] retirement,” he would consider it, but only if the special election were set for the spring.
The council cannot yet request the Circuit Court to set a date for a special election, as no vacancy currently exists. When Burk’s resignation becomes official, the council has 15 days to petition the Circuit Court for a writ of election. The court will set the date of the special election for the next general election, Nov. 8, 2017, unless the council asks for it to be earlier, likely in the spring. It will be a debate that comes with some financial implications, as the cost of a special election is around $30,000, while the costs for a November election, when polling precincts are already up and running, is minimal.
Dunn said he would like the council to consider Gemmill for the appointment.
“He’s already demonstrated beyond anyone I’ve seen the ability to take apart the budget in detail. I feel it would be more seamless and less political to just have him go ahead and continue,” until the winner of the special election takes the seat, he said.
Council members-elect Ron Campbell and Ken Reid were in the audience Tuesday night, and also were asked to share their opinions with the council. While Campbell supported Burk’s proposal, Reid said he thought it would be best for the town staff just to advertise for applications now, and for the council to set the process later. Dunn put forward a motion to that end, but failed to receive a majority support.
Ultimately, Burk’s two motions, both to set the process and to begin advertising for the vacancy, passed. Both Gemmill and Butler abstained on the votes to set the process, and Dunn dissented. Gemmill voted in favor of advertising, while Butler abstained again.