CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — Members of Chesapeake City Council are facing criticism over how the body went about appointing a council member to a vacant seat, with the mayor alleging the process was “sabotaged.”
On Tuesday night, council members voted 5-3 to appoint former Councilman Dwight Parker to temporarily fill the unexpired term of Councilman Matt Hamel.
On Monday, the Virginia State Board of Elections certified Hamel’s election to be the next commonwealth’s attorney for the city. That means Hamel would have had to resign his seat on City Council by Dec. 31.
However, Hamel resigned three days before his win was officially confirmed. Mayor Rick West said he believes it was all part of a scheme to push through a chosen candidate “behind closed doors.”
Filling vacancies on Chesapeake’s City Council is guided by the city’s charter.
Currently, the charter says a vacancy must be filled by a majority vote of the remaining council members within 30 days of the resignation. Whoever is chosen will serve until voters permanently fill the seat in the next general election.
Besides requiring the appointee to be a qualified voter of the city, the charter doesn’t say much else about how council members should go about selecting a candidate.
But the council’s own rules do.
Guidelines approved in 2010 set out that nominees for the vacant position should be submitted to the mayor by each council member. Then, all candidates will be interviewed by City Council and then eliminated one-by-one until an appointee is finally chosen.
Not only were those rules not followed, but West admitted he didn’t even realize those rules were in place until Tuesday night.
West said following the election when it appeared Hamel would be the winner, he proposed opening up the nominations to the public, not unlike other cities do.
“Advertise for any citizen to wants to fill the position to apply,” West said. The City Council would then select from the pool following interviews.
The city clerk was moving forward with that plan, preparing advertisements, when Hamel resigned on Nov. 11, West said.
In his letter, Hamel said that while election results were unofficial, he had already committed to participate in briefings and programs to help him prepare for the new job. He will be taking the role of current Commonwealth’s Attorney Nancy Parr, who has led the office for more than 16 years.
The letter was sent out to all City Council members with Hamel saying his resignation will be effective at midnight.
At 9:43 p.m., Councilman Stephen Best sent an email addressed to the city clerk, asking that an item to appoint his replacement be placed on the agenda for Nov. 16 and that the previous plan to accept applications from the general public be scrapped.
The email chain was obtained by 10 On Your Side after filing a Freedom of Information Act Request.
“As a result of his resignation, and the impact on timeframes previously discussed regarding advertisements and interviews, I respectfully request an item be placed on this Tuesday’s Agenda,” Best wrote. “I furthermore request, to avoid any confusion that may result from previous discussions regarding advertisements and interviews of citizens interested in filling his vacant term, that we immediately suspend any advertisement or solicitations from citizen’s interested in being considered to fill the unexpired term of his office as a member of City Council.”
Within the next hour, council members Robert Ike, Don Carey and Hamel himself all responded, agreeing with Best’s request.
“I concur with Councilman Best in suspending any further advertising to fill my impending vacant seat,” Hamel wrote.
The next morning, West sent a scathing response.
“This obvious political maneuvering in the middle of the night is an attempt to name the replacement for Mr. Hamel without giving citizens proper notification is distasteful,” West wrote. “These actions negate any possibility of considering candidates other than the one you have obviously chosen “behind closed doors.”
West said Hamel’s resignation on Nov. 11 triggered a 30-day clock that only had one council meeting scheduled within it: the one scheduled for Nov. 16. The next is scheduled for Dec. 14.
Neither Hamel nor Best immediately returned 10 On Your Side’s request for comment.
At the City Council meeting, no nominations were made public until a motion was made on the dais.
However, concerned citizens chastised the move for lack of transparency. Several speakers who had caught wind of Parker’s possible appointment, were upset Parker — who has in the past aligned himself with the Democratic party — would replace Hamel, who had just won as the Republican commonwealth’s attorney candidate.
“That’s like stabbing me in the back,” one voter said.
Following public comment, Carey made the motion to appoint Parker.
“We have things going on that we need people with institutional knowledge and experience,” Carey said, referencing Parker’s previous experience on City Council.
Carey also echoed an argument made by supporters of Parker who spoke.
The last time a City Council seat was vacant in 2017, Parker was appointed as he garnered the next-largest vote total in the previous election. All Chesapeake City Council members run at large.
“The precedent has been set,” Cary said.
However, West said that shouldn’t be the case. He blamed the previous move on “lack of knowledge of the process.”
City Council ultimately voted 5-3 to suspend the council’s rules to move forward with the appointment. West, Vice Mayor John de Triquet and Councilwoman Debbie Ritter voted against the move.
Ultimately, the vote to appoint Parker fell along the same voting lines.
De Triquet made a last-ditch effort to appoint Tanya Gould, who was fresh off her loss to Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler (D-Virginia Beach). Only West and Ritter voted with him.
West said Wednesday he has nothing against Parker, but against the process.
“It’s up to us to create a procedure that is open and fair,” West said. “This isn’t it.”
He hopes to bring forward a new process. He said he wouldn’t rule out holding open interviews like other cities do if a majority of council favors it.
“This was a regrettable process,” West said. “Our citizens deserve better and we will do it better next time.”