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Charter bill similar to Front Royal dies

By Alex Bridges

Keeping party politics out of local elections proved tough for more than just Front Royal.

A week after Front Royal leaders saw their request for changes to the town charter die in the House of Delegates a bill for the city of Salem met a similar fate. A panel of the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns on Wednesday morning effectively killed the legislation for the year, according to Mark Flynn, an attorney for the Virginia Municipal League who attended the meeting.

"When it comes to this election stuff the General Assembly ... they want to have party identification," Flynn said. "Our position on this at this point is that we would ask the General Assembly to reevaluate its role in dealing with charter bills."

Sen. Ralph K. Smith, R-Roanoke, sponsored a bill that sought to make changes to Salem's city charter. The bill provided that ballots in elections for city council not identify candidates by party affiliation.

Under the amendment the charter would allow political parties to choose candidates for local elections, who then would file petitions when seeking office, according to Flynn.

"So it would not in fact eliminate party identification of candidates," Flynn said. "It would be consistent with state law. Currently state law says that ballots for local elections do not have to have party identification."

The legislation met no opposition as it moved through the Senate with overwhelming approval. The bill crossed over to the House of Delegates. The speaker referred the bill to the committee Feb. 2 and committee members, in turn, sent the legislation to the subcommittee that often handles charters.

The subcommittee met Wednesday morning and heard a presentation on the bill from Smith before members discussed the legislation, according to Flynn, who also answered questions of the delegates pertaining to the petition and election process.

A delegation of Salem City Council members and the city manager appeared at the subcommittee meeting. The mayor also spoke in favor of the bill, Flynn said. No witnesses testified against the bill, Flynn added.

Del. Delores L. McQuinn, D-Richmond, made a motion to report the bill to the committee. Flynn noted that McQuinn had experience with municipal government because she once served on Richmond City Council. But her motion failed to gain a second and therefore the bill remains left in the subcommittee. The chances of the committee reviving the legislation before midnight Feb. 18 are slim, according to officials at the legislature.

A member of the panel compared aspects of Salem's charter bill with similar legislation for Front Royal that met its demise last week.

Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, on Feb. 5 killed a bill that most Front Royal Town Council members said would change the charter against their wishes. Rather than allow the legislation to cross over to the state Senate with the controversial language, Gilbert asked the House to send the bill back to a committee that would not meet again this session, effectively killing the bill.

Del. Michael Webert, R-Warrenton, sponsored the legislation that would allow the Town Council to change elements of its charter. However, when Webert restored language omitted from the original bill, most Front Royal councilmen said the new wording went against what they had requested. When it appeared the bill would pass the House with the new language, leaders levied criticism at Webert and other state delegates, including Gilbert, for going against their wishes.

Flynn, who worked as the Winchester city attorney for more than a decade and ran an unsuccessful bid for commonwealth's attorney against Paul Thomson, recalled elections then were non-partisan.

"But everybody in town knew who was in which party," Flynn said.

Legislators dealt with more than 20 bills seeking changes to charters. Most bills made it through their respective houses. A Senate committee reported several bills on Tuesday.

Not all bills seeking charter changes and killed in the General Assembly this session dealt with local elections. Legislation for Manassas Park that would give the city power to set its school calendar based on several criteria met defeat in both the House and Senate. A bill to change the charter for Falls Church to let the city set its tax years failed to leave a House committee.

The state code sets the process by which localities can seek changes to charters. Localities can request the General Assembly to amend its charter, Flynn explained. The municipality must hold a public hearing and provide the text or summary of the proposed changes. In the past, Flynn recalled fielding questions from the General Assembly on whether the locality seeking the amendment held a public hearing, the input received and the results of the vote.

"In times past the General Assembly wanted to see if the proper process ... was used to determine the will of the citizens of the locality," Flynn said.

Flynn cited the minutes taken at the Front Royal Town Council meetings pertaining to the charter change and noted that there were locality held public hearings in both October and November. One person spoke at each hearing, but not about non-partisan elections. Flynn also noted one council member voted against the proposed changes.

"They sent it to the General Assembly and the General Assembly chose not to carry out the will of the council," Flynn said.

The attorney noted that the General Assembly in last year's session approved charter changes for Leesburg that included keeping elections non-partisan. Leesburg officials gave the argument that many federal employees live in the town and partisan elections would keep those residents from holding local public office. Front Royal leaders made similar arguments.

A need for the legislature to oversee charter changes exists, Flynn said.

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


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