Newport News considers giving citizens avenue to recall City Council members

Newport News is considering an amendment to the city’s charter that would give voters an avenue to recall City Council members.

The City Council will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday for citizens to provide input on the matter, along with other proposed amendments. The hearing will be at the council chambers, at 2400 Washington Ave.

Last week, the council discussed legislative priorities it would like to send to the Virginia General Assembly. The recall proposal ignited the most debate.

Mayor McKinley Price acknowledged that he championed the proposal. He explained that, currently, unless a council member commits a felony, there’s no way to remove them.

Under the draft proposal, for a council member to be recalled, a petition must be filed with the city clerk containing at least 300 signatures from voters who reside in that member’s district. In the case of the mayor, the petition would require at least 1,000 signatures because it’s a citywide position.

The petition must include a written statement, up to 200 words, detailing the reason for the the recall.

The clerk of Circuit Court would need to verify the signatures amounted to at least 25% of the voters who put the council member in office.

If the petition meets those criteria, a recall election would be scheduled, with a question on the ballot asking voters if the council member should be removed from office, Newport News Intergovernmental Affairs Manager Jerri Wilson told the council last week. If a majority voted in the affirmative, that council member would lose their seat.

Under the draft, a recall petition can’t be filed against a council member for at least one year after they assume office.

Wilson said the charter amendment would give voters “an option when they’re unhappy without having to wait four years for an election. Ideally, it would not be used nefariously.” She added that Norfolk allows citizens to initiate recall efforts in its charter.

Councilwoman Tina Vick expressed concern that opening this door would allow citizens to engage in frivolous recall efforts.

“If this went through, somebody could just say they’re tired of you being on the council, and they’ve just started the recall process,” she said. “I think this is just calling for trouble.”

Councilwoman Pat Woodbury agreed with Vick, saying, “I think it’s opening a bag of worms.”

Price said a recall option could be useful to have “in the toolbag.” Vick said she would feel more comfortable supporting the proposal if there were guidelines on reasons for recommending recalls — such as not showing up at meetings or sexual misconduct. However, she was against allowing recalls for any reason and feared people might start recalling council members because they disagreed with a vote.

“Our decisions don’t always make everybody happy,” she said.

Vice Mayor Saundra Cherry feared people might support recall efforts based on misinformation. Councilman David Jenkins also had concerns about recalls interfering with the council’s ability to do its job.

“What I would be concerned about would be the possibility of a sore loser, who, let’s say, has 300 friends who puts together a petition,” Jenkins said. “And now you’ve got a recall. You have to defend yourself from a recall while you’re trying to serve in office.”.

Marcellus Harris, however, felt there should be some measure in place to remove a council member if they are not performing their obligations. Woodbury and Jenkins agreed with Harris, but maintained their reservations about the current draft proposal.

“I do believe that there should be a provision for us to be able to remove people who have objectively done something against their office, like, for example, not showing up for meetings,” Jenkins said. “I think that’s perfectly reasonable to have a recall petition for something like that. But it’s just too subjective right now. And I think it would be something that could be abused very easily — particularly in this period of very strong feelings in politics.”

While the council was divided on the subject, the members all agreed that they would like to hear from the public on the matter.

Wilson told The Daily Press that the General Assembly would need to approve the charter amendment, should the council desire to move forward with the proposal.

Josh Janney,