Purcellville Town Attorney Sally Hankins’ position defined one way in the Town Charter and another in the Town Code—and the Town Council is working to fix that.
Although the Town Code requires Hankins to report to the Town Council, she’s reported to the town manager since she was hired in 2012, which is in line with the Town Charter. The council on Tuesday discussed its intent to amend the Town Charter to align with the Town Code regarding the position. Council members want to amend the Town Charter to instead have Hankins report to directly to the council.
“We need to bring [the town attorney position] into compliance,” said Mayor Kwasi Fraser.
The Town Code states “the town attorney shall be appointed by the Town Council and … shall serve at the pleasure of the council.” The Town Charter, which is controlled by the Virginia General Assembly, states that “all officers and employees of the municipality … shall be appointed and may be removed by the manager.”
On Tuesday, Councilman Tip Stinnette offered another option, suggesting a hybrid option that would have Hankins reporting to both the council and to Town Manager David Mekarski.
Councilman Nedim Ogelman argued against the hybrid model and said that the Town Charter should be amended to reflect the Town Code, which he said is “a more detailed activation of the charter.”
“We need to do what our ruling institutional documents say to do,” he said.
Mayor Kwasi Fraser said that the Town Charter does not explicitly mention the town attorney position, but that the Town Code specifies that the town attorney should work at the pleasure of Town Council.
When asked to define “at the pleasure of the council,” Hankins said that it’s equivalent to “at will,” meaning the Town Council can hire or fire her for any reason at any time.
It is common for government attorneys to be hired directly by the elected leaders; for example, the Board of Supervisors directly hires only the county administrator and the county attorney. However, the Purcellville council also discussed the possibility of amending the charter to allow the zoning administrator, finance director and town clerk positions also to report directly to the council, rather than Mekarski.
Hankins cautioned the council that such a change is uncommon and that it could make those positions “very susceptible to political pressure,” especially the zoning administrator and finance director positions, since they deal with land use and town finances.
“When you politicize those positions, that may not be an adequate check and balance,” she said.
The Town Council plans to discuss the matter further at a later meeting. If it wants to have the Town Charter amended during next year’s General Assembly, session, it will need to hold a public hearing and have a state delegate or senator sponsor a bill to do so before the end of this year.