Roanoke City Council has recently been seeking to fill the seat of Robert Jeffrey Jr., (D) who had to leave his seat due to his multiple felony convictions surrounding money misappropriations of up to $100,000. City Council announced they would take names to consider for his replacement until 4:00 pm April 1.
At around 9:00 am on Monday, April 4, City Hall announced sixteen had submitted letters of interest. However, by early afternoon, City Council released the names of their six finalists, and by 7:00 pm held a public hearing to receive comments good or bad about those five finalists (one of the original six did not attend).
During that hearing, the audience was subjected to the unseemly spectacle of Mayor Sherman Lea Sr. (D) gaveling to silence a City resident at the microphone, Maynard Keller. The mayor’s position was, comments could only be made in regard to one of the five finalists present that night. No discussion of the process or fairness was tolerated, and those discussions needed to be “at another time.”
In contrast to Mayor Lea’s position, and that of the other members of City Council [see below], Keller and City residents Charlie Nave and Nick Hagen protested that a big problem is both the timing and way the whole process is being run.
City Council is scheduled to announce their final pick on April 18. However, since the next meeting will not be until May, by then the new member will be seated, the process will be over, and any further comments or questions will be pointless. The hearing can be viewed here [timestamps 26:00 and 33:50.]
To an outside observer, it may seem as if City Council has set up a Catch-22: anyone seeking to question or dispute the selection process before the final pick is ruled “out of order,” but anyone with a comment to make at the May meeting will be a half month too late and thus irrelevant. As Council candidate Nick Hagen (R) observed, if you can’t speak about the process at the April 4 hearing, “when can you speak? The next meeting [in May] will be after they’ve made the appointments.”
Speaking to the issue that the April 4 hearing was only to be regarding the finalists and no one else, Hagen remarked, “It’s not a good position for government to take, to tell you what you can or cannot say. In legal circles, that’s called ‘viewpoint discrimination.’ It’s also called a ‘chilling effect,’ and he [Mayor Lea] only gaveled out the three Republicans who tried to speak.”
On April 11, to explain more of the context and give statements of explanation from Mayor Lea and former David Bowers, The Roanoke Star published “Controversy surrounds Roanoke City Council Replacement Process.”
On April 14, a follow-up piece “Unanswered Questions Roil Roanoke City Council Search” quoted candidates Linda Wyatt (D) and Peg McGuire (R) about their perspectives about the process.
Having interviewed Mayor Lea and several other people involved in this controversy, The Roanoke Star reached out to the remaining members of City Council and asked them these questions in bold below. Responses from Council members Bill Bestpitch, Stephanie Moon Reynolds, and Joe Cobb are given below, in full and unedited.
The Roanoke Star also requested information from the other two council members, Patricia White-Boyd and Vivian Sanchez-Jones, but no responses have been received as of publication time. Notably, Ms. White-Boyd first received a seat on Council after she came in fourth in an election and was later granted the position when a seat became open due to a departing member.
[Update 4-19-22: Vice Mayor White-Boyd has since issued a statement which is below:
It is this seeming inconsistency and unwillingness to follow precedent with Peg McGuire that many observers find unjust. For example, Hagen pointed out, “City Council has the right to choose a replacement, but they broke their own precedent yet still talk about ‘equity.'”
The questions and responses are below:
- When Maynard Keller was speaking and Mayor Lea did not let him finish his prepared 3 minutes of prepared remarks but instead asked him to have a seat, why did you not say anything? Was your silent tacit agreement?
Mr. Bestpitch: I quoted from the agenda that had been published the previous Thursday that the public hearing was to receive comments on the applicants who were interviewed, so it’s not correct to say that I didn’t say anything.
Mr. Cobb: The notice of public hearing was posted in advance in both the Roanoke Times and Roanoke Tribune, via social media and again in the agenda for the Monday, April 4, 2022, 7:00 pm. meeting. Further, the Mayor stated the purpose of the public hearing at the beginning of the meeting. The statement read:
- PUBLIC HEARINGS:
- Receive views of citizens regarding the applicants interviewed, at 3:00 p.m., to fill the nine-month term of office of former Council Member Robert L. Jeffrey, Jr., ending December 31, 2022. The candidates for consideration are Suzanne Osborne, Kiesha Preston, Anita Price, Luke Priddy and Kevin Berry.
Mr. Keller’s remarks did not address the stated purpose of the public hearing. Mayor Lea made it clear at the beginning and during the hearing that remarks would be limited to the identified purpose of the public hearing, and he also made clear that any speaker could come and share their remarks at another meeting when we include in our agenda a section for “Hearing from Citizens on Matters of Public Concern.”
The Mayor leads Council meetings, and our role as Council members in public hearings is to listen. As there was no decision being made following the public hearing, there was no discussion.
Ms. Moon Reynolds: Unfortunately, Messrs. Nave, Hagen, and Keller remarks were out of order because they wished to speak in support of Peg McGuire who was not granted an interview. According to the public notice published in The Roanoke Times and The Roanoke Tribune, as well as on social media sites stated that at 7:00 p.m., the Council will receive views of citizens regarding “the applicants interviewed at 3:00 p.m.,” during its regular 2:00 session. As you are aware, Peg McGuire was not among the six applicants selected to be interviewed.
- What criteria did you use to exclude the 10 candidates, or choose the 6 finalists?
Mr. Bestpitch: I am not aware of any selection process for any position that releases that information.
Mr. Cobb: As to the selection process, Council is proceeding in accordance with the law and the circuit court’s order. We were grateful to receive sixteen applications from interested citizens and no preferential treatment was given in the selection process. City Council chose to engage in an open process to receive applications from interested citizens, hear interviews, hold a public hearing, and are continuing to receive public input on the applicants selected. We believe this is the most transparent and appropriate process for our citizens.
Ms. Moon Reynolds: The process for selection of the Council candidate to fill the vacancy is the same process used to select Roanoke City School Board Trustees.
- What would you say to the 11,000+ Roanoke voters who voted for Peg McGuire in Nov. 2020, but now see her not among the 6 finalists? If any of those voters think they are being disenfranchised, how would you respond?
Mr. Bestpitch: Our responsibility to the voters is to select the person we believe to be the best choice to fill the vacancy.
Mr. Cobb: I would encourage any citizen who feels disconnected to seek connection. Find a way to make a positive difference in the community. Join a neighborhood group. Volunteer with a non-profit organization. Apply on-line for one of the many City of Roanoke boards and commissions. Everyone can make a positive difference for the good of our city and community.
Ms. Moon Reynolds: Giving any applicant who competed in the 2020 Council election special advantage or consideration would not have been fair to the other applicants.