Multiple residents filed a petition in Wise County Circuit Court, accusing the mayor of neglecting her duties and misusing her office.
POUND- Back in May, Stacy Carson won in the type of election that people tell folktales about. The kind that proves every vote matters. Carson became the mayor of Pound, Virginia because officials pulled her name out of a hat. She tied with a write-in candidate for the position, so it came down to a 50/50 game of chance.
The town of Pound is in Wise County, at the rural southern tip of Virginia. It has fewer than 1,000 residents and only 120 people cast votes in the mayor’s race. Everything was fine when Carson took office in July. But now, less than six months later, 44 residents, including three current town council members, have signed a petition calling for her removal from office. This isn’t just a request. Residents filed the petition in Wise County Circuit Court on Dec. 7 and officials requested a special prosecutor.
Town Budget is Overdue
The petition claims Carson neglected her duties and misused her office while mayor, laying out 24 different charges. That covers a wide range of accusations, from claiming Carson tried to stop a council member from voting to presenting fake legal information during council meetings. They also accuse her of talking in public about things brought up in closed session and falsely accusing town staff of criminal conduct.
The claims come as Pound struggles to handle basic functions. The town is three years behind on its municipal audit. Also, the council either had to cancel or reschedule multiple meetings and hearings over the last three months. Some were improperly advertised. Others didn’t comply with COVID-19 safety standards. And then there’s the town budget.
Pound’s Dec. 8 town council meeting included a public hearing on the proposed budget for 2021. If that sounds odd, it is. Budget processes typically begin in early spring, finishing by late June. In Virginia, councils approve their budgets by July 1. However, as editor Jeff Lester at the Coalfield Progress originally reported, approving a budget in Pound has been a months-long process that’s yet to resolve.
The main issue involves Pound’s proposed police department budget, which comes in at $380,728. That would be just over 60% of the $586,728 general fund budget. Some residents want more spent on economic development, while others hope for parks and recreation improvements.
But before they address any of that, the council needs to actually meet.
An Illegal Meeting?
The council struggles to simply meet right now. A Nov. 17 meeting lasted only a few minutes, after the crowd size went over Gov. Northam’s restrictions. Then two days later, three council members failed to show up, so they couldn’t have a budget discussion.
Then on Dec. 8, Carson told everyone that day’s meeting was illegal.
“This meeting is out of order and I will be having to stop it because again, advertisement did not take place properly. It is illegal,” said Carson.
Carson was referring to Virginia Code Section 15.2-2506. It says the city or town must publish a budget synopsis and notice of the public hearing in a publication of “general circulation” one week prior. A synopsis of the budget ran twice in the Progress, once on Nov. 3 and again on Dec. 4. However, the issue is about advertising the public hearing. That ran once in the Progress, as Adams mentioned, on Dec. 4. While it also ran on the town’s Facebook page Dec. 4 and there was a notice on the town hall door, Virginia Code specifically says it has to be in a publication one week prior.
But council members wanted to continue. After several minutes of back-and-forth between all those in the room, council members decided to proceed without Carson. They suspended meeting rules and appointed Town Vice-Mayor Phil Cantrell, Jr. to preside.
As Cauthorne pointed out, if the council cancelled the hearing, a new date would have been required. That would make it impossible for the town to approve a budget before the end of the year. And so, they held the hearing.
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Who’s to Blame?
So why is all this happening? The petition claims Carson made it hard for work to get done.
“The actions of the Defendant are prohibiting the normal operations of the Town government to function, and immediate suspension of the Defendant as Mayor is required to allow the Town to function,” the petition states.
However, Carson just took office in July, so it’s unclear how she would have stopped budget work. Those discussions typically start in February and finish by the end of June. Despite the pandemic, a look at Virginia cities and counties shows most met that July date, making changes afterward as needed. Also, the municipal audit’s delay has been an issue for three years.
Some residents also repeatedly raise questions over how the council treats Carson. She can’t be in the town clerk’s office unless Adams is there. Carson also only has keys to the town hall front door, not to any offices.
The argument from Carson’s detractors is that the mayor’s role is mainly ceremonial. The petition cites Pound’s town charter, arguing the person simply “preside(s) at the town meetings” and represents Pound during ceremonies.
Current council members Danny Stanley, Glenn Cantrell and Glenn’s brother Phillip Cantrell Jr. signed the petition. Carson’s predecessor as mayor, George Dean, also signed the document.
“There are too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” Carson said on Dec. 15, speaking as the council tried to hold another meeting. “Too many people think they run the whole show.”
During that Dec. 15 event, Carson urged the board to work together. She pointed out that Wise County supervisors were willing to work with them to craft a budget and address their audit issues, if the council would accept the help. As of now, the council hasn’t officially accepted.
Special Prosecutor Appointed
In the meantime, Scott County Commonwealth’s Attorney Dan Fellhauer comes in as the special prosecutor in the case against Carson. A show-cause order has been issued to Carson, who now has the right to request a jury trial or a bench trial. Forty-four people signed the petition for removal, but the Virginia Code only required 12 in this case. The law says 10% of the total number of votes cast in the election for the relevant office is the required number of signatures. Only 120 people voted for mayor.
The Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney, Charles Slemp, filed a motion requesting the special prosecutor. Slemp said he had too many conflicts in the case to be a “minister of justice” with a “duty of impartiality.” Slemp wrote that he has met with the mayor and town council members in his role as an elected official.
Petitions to remove officials from office are rare. Wise County General Registrar Allison Jones Robbins said she’s been in her position since 2006 and never encountered one.
In 1953, such a petition traveled all the way to the Supreme Court, which described removal proceedings as “quasi-criminal” and “highly penal.” Basically, the job of the special prosecutor is to discern whether Carson really did neglect her duties, misuse her office, or is mentally incompetent to do the job. The prosecutor can also dismiss the suit, but citizens of Pound are similarly empowered to refile it.
If Carson is removed from office following the legal proceedings, a temporary replacement will be appointed until a special election can be held. Technically, since Carson hasn’t been accused of any crimes, she would be eligible to run in that election.
The Pound Town Council isn’t scheduled to meet again until Jan. 19 at 6 p.m.
Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.