COURTHOUSE — Three of the nine people who were under consideration to fill the vacant Kempsville District seat on the City Council have been named as finalists, and one of them is expected to get the job today.
The finalists are Naomi Estaris, the founder of a nonprofit organization and the former chief operating officer for Operation Smile, Inc., former state Del. Rocky Holcomb, who represented the 85th state house district for a year and is a senior leader in the Sheriff’s Office, and former City Councilmember Dr. Amelia Ross-Hammond, a retired professor who represented the Kempsville District on the council and serves as the chairperson of the Virginia African American Cultural Center.
The Kempsville District seat is open following the resignation in July of Jessica Abbott, which was due to a health matter. Abbott resigned early in her second four-year term. She joined the City Council after defeating the then-incumbent Ross-Hammond in 2016 and becoming the youngest person elected to City Council.
An appointee is expected to serve until after the result of a special election that likely will be held in November 2022. That election could not be held this November due to a federal court case that challenged the city’s existing local voting system. U.S. District Court Raymond A. Jackson in an opinion issued this past month said the city could not use the system again, and an appeals court also rejected the city’s request for a special election to be held this year.
Jackson earlier this year declared the system in violation of the U.S. Voting Rights Act and ordered that the voting system can no longer be used. The city is appealing that decision, but the appeal must wait until the ongoing remedial phase of the federal suit is completed.
All three finalists said this week that they would likely run in 2022 for the office if they were appointed. City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson, who holds an at-large seat, posed that question during discussions with candidates.
“I’m willing,” Ross-Hammond said. “I’m ready.”
“I would certainly seek to serve the Kempsville District, and I’m never opposed to being cleansed by the will of the voters,” Holcomb said, drawing a few chuckles for his phrasing.
“When I start something,” Estaris said, “I complete it.”
Initially, there were 15 applicants seeking the appointment, but that number was narrowed to nine. The nine applicants on the “short list” then addressed the City Council and answered questions during a special meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 10.
Today at 4 p.m., members of the public can offer their opinions on filling the seat. The council is expected to make their pick soon after the public comment session.
Of the three people later named as finalists, Estaris spoke first during the Aug. 10 meeting in the council chamber at City Hall.
“I live, work and play in the city of Virginia Beach,” Estaris said. “This is my home. This is the home of my children and my grandchildren. We all need to take responsibility to keep our city the best. I am doing just this by taking action by being here today.”
Estaris discussed buying her first home in Virginia Beach after graduating college. She also spoke of her work with the local Sister Cities organization and working on the Friendship Anchor monument at Kempes Landing Park.
The monument was a gift from the Mariners Museum that symbolizes the relationship between the city and one of its sister cities, Olongapo, Philippines, according to the city.
“Citizens that visit Olongapo or Virginia Beach can see the ties that bind us,” Estaris said.
Priorities for her potential service on the City Council would include addressing sea level rise, economic development, neighborhood revitalization and public safety. Technology, helping the city workforce and ensuring the city is a “competitive, first-class resort” are also important issues, she said.
She discussed her business background as a tax compliance audit manager, 12 years as the chief operating officer at Operation Smile and running a travel business. Currently, Estaris said, she heads up a nonprofit she founded to fight human trafficking.
Community service includes working with Envision 2040 and serving as the president of the Philippine American Chamber of Commerce for South Eastern Virginia, according to biographical information filed with her application.
Estaris said she spoke with Abbott to discuss issues while researching the application for the seat.
“Like her, I agree with and support to continue the appeal,” Estaris said, speaking of the federal suit, in which the plaintiffs successfully argued that the city voting system denies Black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters the ability to elect candidates of their choice.
That issue — whether multiple minority groups considered as a bloc constitutes a claim under the Voting Rights Act — is part of the city’s appeal. In the current remedial process of the lawsuit, proposed new voting systems submitted to the court by both parties include certain districts with majorities of minority voters.
“As a minority myself, I do not feel that there is a minority that is a majority in any one district,” Estaris said.
She said she also supports the bond referendum this fall that would provide money for stormwater and flood-mitigation projects in the city. She also would support efforts to preserve historic Kempsville.
Though she said she has supported multimodal transportation solutions for the city, she said she would not go against the will of voters who rejected extending light rail into the city in a 2016 referendum.
“After discussing with Jessica, I have to say that the people have spoken,” Estaris said.
Holcomb is a Republican who represented the 85th House District for a year following a special election. He serves as the chief deputy in the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office, and he served in the U.S. Marines before becoming a deputy.
“I have lived behind a badge for 30-plus years, serving this community that we all love and enjoy,” Holcomb said. “And that same fighting spirit is exactly why I got into politics and became the first-ever full-time law enforcement officer elected to the oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere, the Virginia General Assembly.”
Holcomb in 2017 defeated Democrat Cheryl Turpin in a special election to serve the unexpired term of Scott Taylor in the 85th House District. However, Turpin defeated Holcomb later that year in the general election for the seat. Holcomb ran again for the 85th District seat in 2019, but he lost to Democrat Alex Askew, who ran after Turpin unsuccessfully sought a Virginia Senate seat rather than reelection to the House of Delegates.
“We were able to get several bills passed as a freshman delegate,” Holcomb said of his time in the state legislature. Holcomb said the first legislation he championed was a study of better serving incarcerated people with mental illness.
“This small step to solving a critical problem resulted in a groundswell of support that has helped us here in the city of Virginia Beach create a pilot program for the treatment of the folks that suffer this horrible, terrible disease that is mental illness,” he said.
He said his time in state government – especially on the finance committee and the counties, cities and towns committee – taught him a lot about local government. Key issues would include public safety, including pay and training for first responders. He would support creating jobs in a “business-friendly city” and efforts to improve education.
Holcomb said he would abstain from voting on issues involving the Sheriff’s Office.
Ross-Hammond, who served a term representing the district on the council prior to Abbott’s election, now serves as the founder and chairperson of the Virginia African American Cultural Center. She is a retired distinguished professor emeritus from Norfolk State University.
“The reason for seeking this appointment is to continue the goals and aspirations of our diverse district,” Ross Hammond said during her remarks to the council.
Key issues for Ross-Hammond included public safety, education, workforce development and stormwater and flood mitigation. She also said she prioritized broadband access, clean energy and open space.
“I bring institutional knowledge, familiarity with capital projects and experience to enable a smooth transition,” Ross Hammond said.
She discussed both representing the district and the wider city, as well as achieving goals of guiding documents such as the comprehensive land-use plan.
“With a purpose-driven mindset, I learned early in life that what impacts one, impacts all,” Ross-Hammond said.
Among examples of accomplishments from her time on the council, Ross-Hammond discussed negotiating for $2.5 million for the preservation of Historic Kempsville and working with a developer to preserve the façade of the former Kempsville High School building from the 1940s when it was redeveloped into luxury apartments.
Ross-Hammond also discussed her part in facilitating the Friendship Anchor project. Like Estaris, she noted the role of Vice Mayor Jim Wood, who represents the Lynnhaven District, in that effort.
City Councilmember Guy Tower, who represents the Beach District, complimented Ross-Hammond on continuing her work for the city even after her defeat by Abbott in 2016.
“I think it is just a part of your remarkable purpose-driven life that when you lost an election … your verve and enthusiasm for serving this city didn’t miss a beat, and you continued to be so deeply engaged,” Tower said.
City Councilmember John Moss, who holds an at-large seat, asked whether Ross-Hammond would support the decision of voters in a 2016 referendum not to extend light rail into Virginia Beach. Abbott opposed extending the Tide here, and she had the endorsement of an anti-light rail political action committee during that election.
“Would you honor the judgment of the voters?” Moss asked Ross-Hammond.
Ross Hammond told Moss she needed to do more research on the issue before responding. She added that nothing related to light rail has come back up since.
“Well, I didn’t get an answer, but let’s move on,” Moss said.
Ross-Hammond was among the people who testified in October 2020 in the federal lawsuit about the voting system. She testified about her experiences in elections and in government service, according to a transcript, and she said one of the factors in her defeat by Abbott was the contentious issue of light rail.
“One of the points for running was to bring multimodal transportation to the city,” Ross-Hammond said during testimony on Friday, Oct. 9.
“Do you believe it was your support for that issue that resulted in your defeat in that election?” Erika Prouty, a lawyer representing the city, asked.
“I believe that played a major part,” the former Kempsville District representative replied.
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