The Lovettsville Town Council pushed through efforts to update the Town Charter by holding two special meetings Monday night.
After a slate of changes championed by Vice Mayor Chris Hornbaker failed to gain majority support during the council’s Dec. 16 meeting, members had planned to continue talks about what changes to make during the new year. However, during the council’s Jan. 6 meeting, Hornbaker presented a new draft that he said addressed the concerns expressed by residents and council members and pushed to have the changes ready for consideration during the current General Assembly session.
The original proposal drew criticism from town residents who objected to the plan to make the mayor a voting member of the council while stripping his veto power, and removing the prohibition of a sitting council member being appointed to fill a vacancy in the mayor’s seat.
In the final version, the mayor’s role will remain unchanged, but the council members and Mayor Nate Fontaine agreed there was merit in allowing an experienced council member to step into the mayor’s seat if needed.
The amendments also would spell changes for residents appointed to fill vacant seats. The current charter stipulates that individuals who are appointed to fill vacant council seats serve out the unexpired term of departed members. That would be dropped, requiring the town to follow State Code provisions that mandate a special election be held no later than the next scheduled general election. The changes also remove the prohibition on appointed council members voting on appropriation issues, including the town budget.
Two of the town’s six council members are appointed. Renee Edmonston was appointed in September 2020 to serve the remaining 21 months of Matthew Schilling’s term. Tony Quintana was appointed in May 2021 to fill the final 19 months of David Steadman’s term. Both terms expire this year, and those seats will be on the November ballot. Had the proposed changes been in effect, both seats would have been subject to special elections.
A new power proposed in the amendments is to permit the mayor or any three council members to request a confirmation vote on the hiring of any town staff member by the town manager. The current charter provides for confirmation votes of only town officers who serve at the pleasure of the council.
After Hornbaker presented his revised draft during the Jan. 6 meeting, Councilman Buchanan Smith, who supported the motion to table the issue at the Dec. 16 meeting, made a motion to rescind that action. That was approved on a 3-0-1-1 vote, with Edmonston abstaining and Councilman David Earl absent.
While that action permitted the council to move ahead with discussion on the charter changes immediately, Town Attorney Shelby Caputo recommended, that because the topic was not listed on the published agenda for the council’s meeting, that the issue be moved to a future session when public comment could be made.
The council then scheduled a pair of special meetings for Monday, one to hear public comments and finalize the charter changes and another to approve the minutes of that meeting so the record could be included with a package summitted to the town’s General Assembly representatives by Tuesday morning, one day before the 2022 session begins in Richmond.
During the public comment period of Monday’s meeting, several residents continued to raise concerns about council’s process of developing the changes, calling for more public input and time to understand the impacts of the amendments, which only had been available to the public since Friday afternoon.
Hornbaker rejected those concerns, noting the council has held several meetings and work sessions on the changes over the past seven months and saying most of the concerns that have been raised were addressed in the final version. He also noted that residents who continue to have concerns about the changes can work with members of the General Assembly who have the final authority.
The proposed charter changes were approved on a 4-0-1-1 vote, with Edmonston abstaining and Smith absent.
Edmonston said she was abstaining from votes on the changes because of a proposed change that would remove the prohibition on non-elected council members from voting on appropriation measures. As an appointed member, she said she wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.