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South Boston Council members clash on election calendar, tap new vice-mayor / July 09, 2018

In a pair of split votes that required South Boston Mayor Ed Owens to break the tie each time, members of South Boston Town Council elected Tina Wyatt-Younger as the town’s new vice-mayor and undid an earlier decision to hold council elections in November, moving the voting back to May.

The Monday night meeting was a rare instance of sharp words among Council members as they clashed over the issue of when to hold town elections. Town Council voted in June to set future municipal races on the date of the November general election to boost voter turnout, but that decision came over the objections of Owens, Wyatt-Younger and Michael Byrd, who argued the move would inject partisan politics into local elections. They were joined Monday night by newly elected council member Sharon Harris in voting to rescind the June decision and restore municipal elections in May.

The same four members also joined together to elect Wyatt-Younger as vice-mayor. She replaces Coleman Speece, who was voted off Council in municipal balloting two months ago. Wyatt-Younger won the vice-mayor position over Robert “Bob” Hughes by a 4-3 margin, with Owens casting the tiebreaker vote.

Hughes was joined by Winston Harrell and Bill Snead in the minority.

Turning to the question of when to hold town elections — in November or May — Harrell opened the debate by addressing the chief objection to holding town races to coincide with the fall general election: that it would politicize what traditionally have been non-partisan affairs.

“The main argument for having these elections in May is that some people feel they might become political,” Harrell said. “But if we look at Halifax — they have their elections in November — and they have not had that issue with people siding with one particular party or another.”

Harrell also said the idea of depoliticizing the elections was quixotic at best: “Everyone in town already knows which party we tend to go with anyway.”

Harrell suggested a trial period in which South Boston would opt for November elections and then Council could consider whether the shift has a negative effect: “My recommendation would be we leave it the way it is [the Council vote in June], we try it [November voting] for one election, and if we have some horrible results then we can move back to May then.”

Hughes also backed a November election calendar, but it was Bill Snead who set off a heated reaction from fellow Council members when he implied that the new majority was acting in bad faith by rescinding the June Council decision.

“When decisions were made, when the meeting was over, I moved forward with South Boston… To me there’s some honor in that. Even when I’m in the minority, there’s some honor in saying, ‘I’m going to move forward regardless of whether I disagree,’” said Snead.

Snead claimed that no city or town in Virginia had ever gone back on its decision to move to November elections. “We ought to make the front page [of the newspaper], ought to be on the TV stations, because I’m telling you what, this really sets a precedent. It’s upsetting.”

By undoing the June vote, Snead said, “the members of the Council now [as opposed to back in June] … what they’re saying is, ‘Mr. Snead, your opinion doesn’t count on this Council. Your vote doesn’t count.’ And I’m really, I’m, I’m, I tell you I’m floored by it.”

Wyatt-Younger and Byrd, plainly upset by Snead’s remarks, suggested that it was wrong for Council to vote in June to change the election calendar, knowing that the composition of the six-member group would soon change when Harris took her seat the following month.

“This was not brought up last year,” Wyatt-Younger pointed out after Snead had finished. “This was brought up after this election.”

Byrd cited Snead’s words to argue that his views had been similarly ignored when the Current Issues Committee, of which Byrd is a member, voted to recommend the change to November balloting over his objections — plus those of Owens and Wyatt-Younger.

“I feel as part of this Council and part of this committee, you [Snead] knew before I knew,” Byrd said about the decision to move the elections. “That was a decision was made that I was not part of.

“That [Snead’s handling of the decision] wasn’t fair. Neither was it open. We’re the Council. We work together. That to me was disheartening, sir.”

After the exchange gave way to strained silence, Owens asked for a motion and a vote. Byrd, Wyatt-Younger, and Harris voted to rescind the June decision and Hughes, Harrell and Snead cast “no” votes on the motion, in effect voting to preserve the November election date. Owens sided with the new vice-mayor and her allies, and May municipal elections were restored.

This story will be updated.

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