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Moss proposal would require members of City Council to resign before running for another seat

Ed. — This story originally ran in the Friday, Oct. 4, print edition.

BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE

COURTHOUSE   Members of the Virginia Beach City Council would have to resign before running for another council seat under a plan proposed amid a political campaign in which Councilmember Rosemary Wilson, who currently holds an at-large seat, is running in the upcoming special election to represent the Beach District.

City Councilmember John Moss, who also holds an at-large seat, introduced the plan, which was the subject of a public hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 1, at City Hall.  During an interview, Moss said the proposal would not change the race involving Wilson, but it would prevent such a situation from happening again. The plan needs approval from the Virginia General Assembly before it could be implemented here, and the resolution may be included in the city legislative package for consideration in Richmond.

However, it is uncertain whether it has enough support to make the final legislative agenda that could be adopted this month.

Moss said the change would not have any influence over the special election in the Beach District, in which absentee voting already is underway. In a social media post, he noted that it would prevent the tactic of running for a seat on the council while already holding a seat. 

In the special election, Wilson faces two other candidates, businessperson Richard “R.K.” Kowalewitch, who ran unsuccessfully for the Beach District seat last year, and City Councilmember Guy Tower, an attorney who was temporarily appointed earlier this year to the Beach District seat.

The seat is up in the special election in November because judges found David Nygaard, who won a close election in 2018 and survived a recount, had moved into the district only to for the office. 

“It’s a good correction,” Moss said of the proposal. “It doesn’t effect anyone this time out.” He did not criticize Wilson for seeking the Beach District seat. “You can’t blame someone for exercising the law as it exists.”

Wilson, in an interview, said Moss’ plan looks like a response to her candidacy, but she said she is running because she is the best person to represent a district that needs experience and stability.

Wilson decided to run before Tower, who during the appointment process said he would not seek the seat, changed his mind. She said she saw the turnover of Nygaard to Tower, an appointee, and that meant a complex district had been represented in a matter of months by “rookies.”

Wilson said the district contains three important revenue sources for the city – the resort and Naval Air Station, two major economic drivers here, and the transatlantic cable capacity, representing a growing opportunity for Virginia Beach.

“I thought it really needed my leadership and experience,” Wilson said. “I know how to get things done. This is not an easy job.”

Three decades ago, the General Assembly added a “resign to run” requirement to the city charter when a member of the council runs for the office mayor, according to Moss’ proposal. The proposed change would make a similar requirement when an at-large member seeks a district seat or vice versa. Under the City Council’s hybrid system, the 11 members of the council hold either at-large seats or represent specific geographic districts in which they must reside. Voters from throughout Virginia Beach select the at-large and district representatives alike.

Under Moss’ proposal, unexpired portions of the term of someone who resigns to run would be filled by either a vote during that general election or during a special election, rather than by appointment, as some seats have been filled. Tower and Councilmember Michael Berlucchi in the Rose Hall District, both now running to represent their respective districts, are temporary appointees.

The City Council tentatively is scheduled to consider its legislative agenda on Tuesday, Oct. 15, at City Hall. Wilson said she did not know whether Moss’ proposal would have enough support to make the final legislative agenda. She said the provision that mayoral candidates from the council must resign to run is intended to prevent that office from facing constant electoral challenges. That office, she said, “is a whole different position.”

“I don’t see this as any different from running for any other office,” she said, noting that members of the council who have sought state office have stayed in their council seats. Also, she noted that other candidates such as state Del. Glenn Davis stayed in the Virginia General Assembly while seeking the GOP nomination to be lieutenant governor.

And she said that, given the August deadline for candidates to file for the special election this year, an appointment would have been likely for her at-large seat on the council had she resigned to run in the Beach District because there likely would not have been time to call another special election that coincided with the Nov. 5 general election.

The Beach District race is also the subject of a court matter scheduled to be heard on Friday, Oct. 11, in Circuit Court. Kowalewitch has sought to have the Virginia Beach registrar remove Wilson and Tower from the ballot, claiming that state law says they are ineligible to run because Wilson holds another seat and Tower is an appointee. 

Donna Patterson, the director of the Virginia Beach Voter Registration & Elections Office, told Kowalewitch via email that he is confused about a law meant to prevent officials from holding two offices at once. 

Kowalewitch’s legal papers and correspondence with the registrar also seek to kick two other appointees off the ballot in other special election races. They are Berlucchi, running for the council seat, and School Board Member Jessica Owens. 

Both are in Rose Hall. As with the Beach council race, the respective special elections are necessary due to residency issues.

Saemi Murphy, an attorney representing the registrar, argued in a court filing that the code Kowalewitch cites “shows that it prohibits holding of two offices, but not from running for another office while holding an office.” [Ed. – A story about the court matter is available at princessanneindy.com]

Some citizens spoke about the proposed charter amendment, which would be included in the legislative agenda, during public hearings about it and the overall legislative package at City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 1.

Reid Greenmun, a founding member of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, said he supported Moss’ item. “If you decide to run for another office on the City Council, resign the one you have,” Greenmun said.

Speaker Michelle Rilee agreed. “Just because something is legal doesn’t mean something is necessarily ethical,” she said, adding that there should not be appointments to vacated seats because that takes the choice away from voters.

Barbara Messner, a community activist and frequent speaker during City Council meetings, said she was not in favor of the change “at this time” because it was a moot point in the Beach District race.

“It’s a little too late,” Messner said. “The ballots have already been printed. … I’m not in favor of this grandstanding resolution after the ballots have been printed and thousands of residents have already been voting by absentee ballots since Friday, Sept. 20.” 

However, Messner also said Wilson should not be able to use the “platform” of her current seat to seek another. And Messner noted that, following the resignation in 2018 of Mayor Will Sessoms, two members of council who ran to replace him – Ben Davenport and Bobby Dyer, who ultimately won – had to leave their council seats to do so.

“These positions are elected positions,” Messner said. “There is no consistency.”

Greenmun, speaking during the hearing about the overasll legislative package, also said members of the public did not have sufficient time during the hearing to comment upon each aspect of the package.

Andrew Jackson, a community advocate, also said nobody could have an intelligent conversation about multiple items within three minutes “in their wildest dreams.”


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