State re­quests ‘timely ac­tion’

No date set for hear­ing, but Board of Elec­tions asks court to re­move Hopewell elec­tion of­fi­cials in wake of next month’s polls

The Progress-Index - - FRONT PAGE - By Bill Atkin­son As­sis­tant Ed­i­tor

The State Board of Elec­tions has for­mally pe­ti­tioned a Hopewell judge to re­move two mem­bers of the cour­tap­pointed city Elec­toral Board over claims of malfea­sance in hir­ing the gen­eral reg­is­trar and for their vote to ap­prove an il­le­gal bal­lot for the Novem­ber coun­cil­manic elec­tions.

In fil­ing the pe­ti­tions Tues­day, the SBE claimed the ac­tions of David W. Sil­ve­stro and Her­bert F. Townes Jr. “led to the fail­ure of the Hopewell Elec­toral Board to ad­e­quately over­see” the reg­is­trar’s of­fice.

The pe­ti­tions, unan­i­mously ap­proved by the state board last month, said Sil­ve­stro and Townes failed to fol­low state Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quire­ments for open meet­ings and “voted to pro­duce bal­lots not in agree­ment with Vir­ginia Bal­lot Stan­dards.”

The pe­ti­tions were filed in Hopewell Cir­cuit Court Tues­day by the state at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice on the SBE’s be­half. At their monthly meet­ing ear­lier in the day in Rich­mond, the three SBE mem­bers signed off on the pe­ti­tions and sent them to the at­tor­ney gen­eral for fil­ing.

No date has been set for a hear­ing, but the SBE asked the court to “timely ap­point new in­di­vid­u­als to the [HEB] to en­sure the fair, uni­form and ef­fi­cient ad­min­is­tra­tion of elec­tions in Hopewell.”

City vot­ers go to the polls Nov. 6 to elect four City Coun­cil mem­bers, and rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the U.S. Se­nate and House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

The third mem­ber of the HEB, chair­man Pa­trick Wash­ing­ton, was not in­cluded in the re­moval.

Sil­ve­stro and Townes have not yet filed re­sponses to the pe­ti­tions. Sil­ve­stro said ear­lier that he was weigh­ing his op­tions, and Townes in­di­cated a will­ing­ness to con­test the SBE’s de­ci­sion.

Last month, state elec­tion of­fi­cials sum­moned the HEB mem­bers and Gen­eral Reg­is­trar Yolanda W. Stokes to Rich­mond to ex­plain their ac­tions over the Aug. 21 vote by the lo­cal board to ap­prove a coun­cil bal­lot draft with the names of three of the eight coun­cil can­di­dates in cap­i­tal let­ters. State elec­tion laws re­quire that all bal­lot names ap­pear uni­formly to avoid any ap­pear­ance of pref­er­en­tial treat­ment.

But in that Au­gust meet­ing, Sil­ve­stro and Townes voted for the bal­lot with the cap­i­tal let­ters, claim­ing they thought that was how the can­di­dates wanted their names to ap­pear. They also said they were aware of threat­ened law­suits against the city by those whose names ap­peared in all caps and those whose names did not.

The three can­di­dates

- two in­cum­bents and a chal­lenger - de­nied seek­ing pref­er­en­tial treat­ment and said they printed their names on their ap­pli­ca­tions in block let­ters for leg­i­bil­ity pur­poses. They also de­nied threat­en­ing suit.

Sil­ve­stro and Townes main­tained they thought they were vot­ing in Au­gust to get of­fi­cial di­rec­tion from the state over the ap­pear­ance of the can­di­dates’ names on the bal­lot, not the bal­lot it­self, de­spite video ev­i­dence shown of a con­tentious at­mos­phere dur­ing that meet­ing and Stokes clearly ex­plain­ing that they were vot­ing on the bal­lot.

Stokes main­tained she never in­tended to have the names ap­pear in all cap­i­tal let­ters, but she was only act­ing on the di­rec­tion of her di­rect em­ploy­ers, the lo­cal Elec­toral Board.

Sil­ve­stro and Townes were also cited in the SBE pe­ti­tion over their ac­tions last spring in hir­ing a new gen­eral reg­is­trar prior to

the June pri­maries. The long­time reg­is­trar had re­tired, and the per­son named as her suc­ces­sor quit af­ter a month, forc­ing Hopewell into scram­ble mode in or­der to ad­min­is­ter the pri­maries.

Elec­tions of­fi­cials from around the area stepped in to help, and one out­side of­fi­cial was tapped to tem­po­rar­ily hold the po­si­tion un­til a suc­ces­sor was named.

Ac­cord­ing to records, the board voted in closed ses­sion - an FOIA vi­o­la­tion - to hire a reg­is­trar. But that per­son later with­drew and the board even­tu­ally turned to Stokes, a former Hopewell Redevelopment and Hous­ing Author­ity mem­ber with ex­pe­ri­ence in third-party voter regis­tra­tion pro­cesses. The June pri­maries went as sched­uled with no ma­jor glitches.

Dur­ing the Sept. 20 tes­ti­mony be­fore the SBE, Wash­ing­ton main­tained that Sil­ve­stro and Townes acted as a bloc to keep him out of the

loop on HEB busi­ness and meet­ing sched­ules. Sil­ve­stro and Townes both de­nied that, adding that Wash­ing­ton pur­pose­fully kept him­self dis­tanced from them.

Sil­ve­stro and Townes are the two Demo­cratic rep­re­sen­ta­tives on the board, and Wash­ing­ton is the lone Repub­li­can. In ac­cord­ing with state law, the party af­fil­i­a­tion of the sit­ting gov­er­nor is con­sid­ered the ma­jor­ity on lo­cal and state elec­tion boards.

Lo­cal elec­toral board mem­bers are ap­pointed by the lo­cal­ity’s cir­cuit court. Sil­ve­stro has been on the HEB since last March, and his term was set to end in 2021. Townes has been on the board since 2014, and his term will be up in 2020.

Wash­ing­ton’s term is set to end next year.

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