Council Eschews Public Forum and Decides in Closed Session.
Meeting on Jan. 9, the Leesburg Town Council appointed Hugh Forsythe to a special term to fill the seat vacated when Kelly Burke was elected Major last November.
Forsythe, a retired Air Force Major General, was selected from among five candidates to fill the spot after council members discussed his candidacy in a closed session.
Forythe said his main goals are to assist County and Town law enforcement, relieve traffic congestion and find a balance between residential and commercial development. He was picked from a group of finalists that also included Gwen Pangle, Joshua Thiel, Rusty Foster and Jed Babbin. He was sworn in immediately after receiving the appointment.
Following presentations by the applicants, the Council voted on each candidate. The voting process was set to end as soon as one of the candidates received at least four votes. All five received three votes for and three votes against.
The votes were mainly along partisan lines. Council members affiliated with the Republican Party, including Tom Dunn, Ken Reid and Suzanne Fox, voted for Babbin and Forsythe and against Pangle and Foster. Those affiliated with the Democratic Party, including Burk, Marty Martinez and Ron Campbell, cast opposite votes.
Thiel was the only candidate not to receive votes directly along party lines, garnering votes from Reid, Fox and Campbell. Dunn said he voted no initially just so the other candidates could also be brought for a vote. After all five candidates drew three-three ties, Dunn brought Thiel up again, but this time the partisan split returned, with Campbell instead voting no and Dunn voting yes.
Subsequently, Campbell motioned to send the meeting into a closed session. Four of the six members voted to do so, with Ken Reid and Tom Dunn voting against it. Dunn refused to attend the closed meeting, saying it hurt transparency.
“It was improper,” Dunn said. “Some deal was done, but I didn’t want to be a part of it.”
Burk said the closed session was necessary because the Council was debating a personnel matter, one of three legal reasons governments may adopt a session closed to the public. The other two are land use and legal matters. She said the Town’s human resources department warned the Council that even a public comparison between two people could lead to a lawsuit.
“It was improper. Some deal was done, but I didn’t want to be a part of it.” Tom Dunn
Burk said in the closed session the board was persuaded to break it’s gridlock because of Forsythe’s bipartisan abilities. All five council members in the meeting voted for Forsythe after returning from the closed session. After winning the selection, Forsythe said he was not adherent to party politics and would vote for or against both parties.
“I think it was important that there wasn’t a political agenda, that it was someone who would work with others, that had some knowledge and interest in the town, and his sense of humor was not an insignificant part of it,” Burk said.
Even the structure of the selection process caused divisiveness. There were 13 applicants to the seat, and Dunn said council members were told to select their top three to invite to the Town Council meeting in order to deliver a presentation explaining why they should be selected. He said he wasn’t informed that instead of just selecting three, he was supposed to assign them a rank of first choice, second choice and third choice.
That lead to a discrepancy in invited candidates. Under the ranking system, four were invited to present, with two applicants tied with the third-most points. Under the choice system Dunn used, Thiel had one of the three most selections, and after discussions over the past weekend, was also invited to present.
On the dais, Burk said it was a simple miscommunication. Town Manager Kaj Dentler said the original intent was for council members to rank their selections.
Before selecting Forsythe, the Council voted 5-1, Dunn opposing, that it’s temporary appointee would serve until a full election is held in conjunction with the state and local elections scheduled in Nov. 2017. The Council decided on November instead of a spring election because it allowed the new council member more time to make an impact on the Town and to save the estimated $30,000 cost to holding a special election for that sole seat.
In opposing the vote in favor of November, Dunn said it was important for the people to be represented by a dully elected representative as early as possible.