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Posted January 31, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Front Royal charter bill conflicts with council choice

By Alex Bridges

FRONT ROYAL -- Town Council's efforts to move elections to November and make the contests non-partisan keeps hitting legislative roadblocks.

A House of Delegates subcommittee on Wednesday endorsed a bill sponsored by Del. Michael Webert, R-Warrenton, which seeks to change the town charter. The panel also endorsed amendments Webert presented that were intended to restore language pertaining to elections originally approved by Town Council.

One problem: Council voted 5-1 at its Nov. 26 meeting to change local elections from May to November of the even-numbered years. An amendment backed by the Campaign Finance subcommittee changes the elections to November in odd-numbered years. The bill and amendments go to the Committee on Privileges and Elections on Feb. 1.

Front Royal Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker on Thursday expressed "grave concerns" that the requested changes may not make it through the House of Delegates.

"Delegates don't seem willing to fight for the original language," Parker said by phone from Richmond.

Webert responded by email Thursday evening to questions about the bill as it moves through the legislature.

"The decision by the town of Front Royal to move the elections to November has been granted, but the year was shifted to odd years due to concerns of the increased cost to the state during presidential years," Webert stated. "If there are issues due to the increased turn out of the election, they would not interfere with the town function."

Delegates decided to not change the original charter language because it is non-partisan in nature, Webert stated. Constituents raised concerns that they wanted the ability for candidates affiliated with political parties to run for election, according to Webert.

Copies of the amendments provided by an attorney in the General Assembly state that "the Mayor and Town Council shall be elected on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November in odd numbered years."

Parker also voiced concern that the bill, contrary to council's wishes, didn't contain language that would make elections non-partisan. Parker said he disagrees with delegates that such language isn't necessary.

The vice mayor also commented that the bill seeks to extend the terms of serving council members by 18 months, a period that exceeds the usual extension of six months. Parker called the action "overzealous."

Parker also criticized Front Royal's representation in the House of Delegates. Delegates C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, and Beverley Sherwood, R-Winchester, also represent the towns.

Town Council may need to rely on the state Senate to support their request, Parker said.

At least two councilmen at the Nov. 26 meeting expressed reluctance to vote in favor of the changes. Councilman Daryl Funk, who voted in opposition, voiced concern over turnout at the polls for presidential and non-presidential elections. Questions had been raised over whether the town should hold council and mayoral elections at the same time as presidential contests in the even-numbered years.

Council sought language in the charter to make elections non-partisan. The amendment as provided states "Candidates for Town Council may be nominated by petition or by political party in the manner prescribed by general law."

Funk at the Nov. 26 meeting expressed concern that the town may not be allowed to include forced non-partisan elections.

The amendment also calls for the mayor and council members in office at the time the charter goes into effect to remain in their positions until their successors have been elected at the November general election in the odd-numbered year following the year in which their term would have ended.

Terms for council members begin Jan. 1 following their election and each member shall serve for four years. The amendments call for the mayor to serve a term of two years.

Parker said Wednesday he believes there might exist some push in the legislature to make local elections partisan.

Parker noted that the charters of many other localities across the state contain provisions to make elections non-partisan. The General Assembly approved changes to Leesburg's charter making elections non-partisan.

"We're not asking for a precedent here," Parker said. "We're simply asking for what others have received."

A large percentage of the town's residents commute to Washington, D.C., and work for the federal government. Making the town's elections partisan would prohibit many of those residents from running for town council because of federal regulations, Parker added.

"To me that is unfair. Because of the Hatch Act we would be disqualifying so many of our citizens, that's my real concern," Parker said.

Mayor Timothy Darr, who works for the federal government, would be disqualified from running for election.

Several other localities asked for General Assembly approval to make charter changes, but only Front Royal and the city of Salem sought to keep elections non-partisan.

The state Senate on Monday passed the charter bill for Salem by a vote of 40-0 on a third and final reading. The Committee on Local Government reported the bill out recommending its approval by a unanimous vote. Prior to the panel's action the subcommittee on charters endorsed the change. The subcommittee dealt with charter changes proposed by five localities.

The Salem charter, under the requested changes, would prohibit election ballots from identifying council candidates by a political party.

But Front Royal Town Council members noticed the different route their charter change has taken in the House of Delegates. The House leader first referred the bill to the Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns. The bill then was assigned to a subcommittee. However, on Jan. 25, according to the Legislative Information System, the House referred the bill from Counties, Cities and Towns to the Committee on Privileges and Elections. The panel then assigned the bill to the subcommittee on Campaign Finance.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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