The Leesburg Town Council on Monday completed another contentious round of voting to fill a vacant seat. It was the third time in a year that town leaders found themselves going around in frustrating circles to complete the task.
The first was the several-weeks-long effort to select someone to serve as mayor until last November’s election. That was followed by the appointment of someone to fill newly appointed Mayor Dave Butler’s council seat, a selection process that prompted criticism from council members and candidates alike about the backroom maneuvering that came to characterize the exercise. This week’s procedure to select someone to fill Mayor Kelly Burk’s former council seat was supposed to address those concerns. While the newly adopted guidelines assured that all council members had a voice in the process, the exercise also spurred frustration and criticism.
It wasn’t the deadlocked council’s decision to retreat to closed session to hammer out a final decision that caused the rub; it was that some of the steps designed to improve transparency in the selection process failed to do so.
Thirteen residents asked to be considered for the appointment. That list was whittled by having each council member name their top three candidates, with the idea that the top three vote-getters would be invited to make an interview-type presentation during the public meeting. A misstep in the process was narrowing the list through a behind-the-scenes email exchange. While inclusive to council members, it was outside the public’s eye—and needlessly so. If council members had announced their top choices during a public meeting, the controversy over the ranking system that resulted in one top candidate almost being excluded from the final round of review would have been avoided.
The other element that hampered the council in all three appointment efforts was its members’ stubborn partisanship. On Monday, the council repeatedly deadlocked on votes to appoint each of the five finalists; one candidate was subject to two 3-3 votes. It wasn’t until the council retreated behind closed doors—an action permitted as an exemption to Virginia’s open meeting laws—that they lowered their political shields and agreed on an appointee to help lead the town.
There are many critical challenges facing Leesburg in the coming year. Those won’t be smoothly navigated if the council remains so sharply divided. This new council has a small window to learn a lesson that many of its predecessors know well: The best way to protect Leesburg’s small-town character is to leave the big-city partisanship outside the council chambers.