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Mayor selection raises questions

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Mitchell seconds Greene’s nomination, then votes for himself; Plichta new vice mayor after Greene declines

By Shannon Watkins

Willie Greene refused to accept a nomination for reappointment as Galax’s vice mayor at Monday night’s Galax City Council meeting, after he was earlier nominated to serve as mayor.

Questions arose over voting procedure, and Mayor C.M. Mitchell — who was reappointed — said later he had intended to support Greene if he was nominated as mayor.

Council members choose the city’s mayor and vice mayor from among themselves.

Greene has been on council since 1994, and vice mayor since 2000.

Mitchell was chosen as mayor with a vote of 4-2; with one council member absent. He has been on council since 1986, and mayor since 1992.

The appointments took place among council after the installation of new members Travis Haynes and Sharon Ritchie, who were elected in May.

When the time came to nominate and vote for the mayor at the July 9 meeting, Council Member Bill Davis nominated Mitchell.

“I nominate Willie Greene,” said a member of Greene’s family, who were in the audience, to overall amusement.

“Nominations have to come from council themselves,” said City Manager Keith Barker with a straight face, to more general laughter.

Haynes nominated Greene for mayor, but his motion received no second.

Council Member Ches Helmick was not present, as he is currently on a mission trip to a hospital in Zambia, an excursion that was planned several months in advance, according to Haynes.

Haynes noted that Helmick also supported Greene for mayor, but he was not present to vote.

Council Member Sharon Plichta seconded the nomination of Mitchell, and Barker asked council for a vote.

Mitchell, Plichta, Davis and Ritchie voted for Mitchell; Haynes and Greene were the only two members to vote in opposition.

“The motion passes with Mr. Mitchell as mayor,” Barker announced.

It was at this point that the mood in the chamber changed from congenial to strained.

“What are we doing?” asked Greene.

“There was a motion and a second by Mr. Davis for Mr. Mitchell for mayor,” said Barker. “Travis nominated you as mayor. There was not a second.”

Barker then asked if there was a second to the motion nominating Greene.

Mitchell seconded Greene for mayor.

“If everybody’s in agreement, we’ll vote again,” said Barker. “We’ve got a motion and a second for Mr. Mitchell. All in favor of Mr. Mitchell?”

Again, all but Greene and Haynes raised a hand for Mitchell.

With a 4-2 vote, Mitchell won the title.

“I’m not a sore loser, but I’ll tell you, we didn’t follow proper procedure,” said Greene. “I’m going to say that.”

He was visibly disgruntled, and the tone of the meeting went from hesitant to quietly tense.

“If I’ve done something wrong with procedures, I’ll be happy to back up,” said Barker.

“No... well, you don’t second the nomination, I mean, there wasn’t a motion. There was never a motion,” said Greene. “There was a nomination and a second for each nomination,” said Barker.

“There was no motion,” said Greene. “You can make a nomination, but you’ve got to make a motion to accept the nomination.”

“OK,” said Barker. “You have to excuse me, that’s how we’ve typically done it.”

“It’s OK,” said Greene.

(Barker said later that according to “Robert’s Rules of Order,” which council uses as a guideline for meeting protocols, a second is not necessary for nominations in this particular type of election, though traditionally in Galax there will be second for each nomination.)

“We have nominations, again, for Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Greene,” said Barker. “We have a nomination and a second for each of these. Is there a motion that we accept those nominations as presented?”

Plichta moved for the acceptance, and Mitchell seconded.

“All in favor of accepting those nominations as presented, raise your right hand,” said Barker.

All present voted to accept the nominations.

Again, the votes came out four for Mitchell and two for Greene.

“I’m disappointed this evening,” said Greene.

As Mitchell was now mayor, Barker turned over the vice mayoral appointment proceedings to him.

Mitchell opened nominations for vice mayor. Davis nominated Greene; Plichta seconded the motion.

“Well, before you do that, I decline to run,” Greene said. “I’m not going to do it again. Thank you, I appreciate you. Thank you, but I’m not going to do it. It’s time for somebody else to do it. There’s plenty of qualified people here to do it.”

After a few moments of silence, Ritchie nominated Plichta for vice mayor, seconded by Mitchell. Plichta won, receiving votes from all six council members present.

“Council, thank you very much,” said Mitchell.

Despite his earlier dismay at the vote, Greene did joke around with other council members briefly while several board appointments were filled Monday night, and appeared resolved to the council election’s outcome.

At the end of the meeting, council opened the floor to public speakers. Meagan Helmick, wife of Council Member Ches Helmick — who later said she attended as a citizen — strode to the public lectern.

“I was just confused about the mayor’s vote,” she began, after greeting council. “I’d like to ask for some clarification. I saw that C.M. nominated Willie, but then did not vote for him. So I was wondering if you could explain why you didn’t vote for him.”

After about 15 seconds of mostly silence and a couple of false starts, Mitchell replied, “We only have six members here this evening, and it doesn’t need to be a... uh, because of our charter, we have to… the mayor has to be chosen at this meeting. And so there couldn’t be a tie. If a tie came out, then we’d just... we’d have to vote again.”

“Did you say you voted for me?” asked Greene.

“No,” replied Mitchell.

“He voted for himself,” Plichta clarified for Greene.

“Oh, OK,” said Greene.

Helmick, who had gone back to her seat, asked, “Can I come back up?”

She regained the lectern and said, “I was just confused because I was under the impression that if there was a tie, you would vote at the next meeting.”

“No,” said Mitchell, “because our charter says that — ”

“You have to?” put in Helmick. “So you would just keep voting today until somebody…?”

Mitchell nodded, but Barker said, “No, I correct that, if there’s a tie, then it does carry over to the next meeting.”

“That’s what I thought,” said Helmick.

“Thank you, thank you,” called out someone from the back of the room among Greene’s family, while another person clapped.

“Because [you make] a motion or second doesn’t mean you have to vote for [the candidate named in the motion or second],” Barker continued.

“Right, I understand that,” said Helmick.

Soon after, the meeting adjourned. No further official discussion of the vote, or of carrying the vote over to another meeting, was made.

In the aftermath of the meeting, Mitchell told The Gazette of the upset, “after the [May] election, it was obvious to me that I would not be mayor. And I had told Willie that if he were nominated [for mayor] I would support him — vote for him. And that was my full intention, what I said I was going to do.”

Mitchell continued, “But when we voted tonight, [Greene] only got two votes. And I felt like we needed to — in my mind I thought we had to do it tonight. I didn’t realize we could carry it over to the next meeting. When he only got two votes, thinking that we really needed to finish this tonight, I voted for myself. It would have been a tie.”

(Had Mitchell voted for Greene, the vote would have been tied 3-3.)

He added, “I’m sorry for the upset. I feel bad about it, too.”

Mitchell indicated that Greene’s displeasure was a surprise, and that he did not vote for himself over Greene with any malice. “You know, I like Willie. I respect him. He’s a good councilperson. We serve on the landfill committee together. He’s thoughtful.”

As for his own support of Greene, Haynes said, “We just talked, a few members, Ches and myself. We thought that was what we needed to do.”

Asked if the turn of events was unexpected, Haynes said, “I don’t have any surprises. This is my first meeting. I don’t know what to expect. It’s quite a thing to come to in your first meeting.”

Meagan Helmick also confirmed later that her husband supported Greene, but had the Zambia mission trip set up eight months prior. Despite this, she said, he tried to participate.

“He asked if he could vote by proxy — phone, FaceTime — he wanted to vote,” she said. “But according to the charter, it had to take place at this meeting” — the first meeting in July — and required his physical presence.

She further said that in her opinion, Greene declining the position of vice mayor “says that he’s listening to the citizens and he knows that they want new leadership, and he’s willing to have that come about.”

For the first time in several elections, new candidates — Haynes and Ritchie— received more votes then the incumbents. Also, while Greene historically has led Mitchell in the polls, this year Mitchell received 14 more votes than Greene.

Kisha Johnson, leader of the Hope Ladies, who run God’s Storehouse and Soup Kitchen from Rooftop CAP on Main Street, was present at the meeting. She said later, “Mr. Greene has done all the work since ’95. Literally all the work. He is the one who advocates for Galax at the state level. I’m disappointed by C.M.’s actions.”

Asked later in an interview if it was an emotional moment for him, Greene said, “Yes it was,” but declined to comment on the matter further.

“I probably said all I need to say in there [at the meeting]. I’m not going to… you know, it is what it is. They won.”

However, Greene said he will continue to serve with his characteristic dedication and purpose.

“Oh, yeah! I mean, I just got elected” in May, he said. “I’ll just be on council. I don’t mind. I plan to attend all the meetings. I still get to do things and help the city and help the citizens. That’s the main thing. And I have enough stuff to keep me busy. Just recently, the governor appointed me to the State Executive Council for the Office of Children’s Services, that’s a really big council.”

Asked later if he has been promised support and lost it before, Green replied, “I’d just rather not say. I’d rather not get into that. If he did, he did,” referring to Mitchell’s earlier comments about supporting him as mayor if nominated.

“I’m OK... I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’ve had a lot of opportunity to do a lot of things for the city, and I’m OK with that. And, you know, I will continue. Not just locally, but on the state level, too.”

On working with not one but several governors, from both political parties, Greene added, “It’s a great opportunity. I think it shows I can get along with people.”