0
Votes

Partisan Politics in Vienna?

Vienna Town Council grapples with political endorsements.

When Alice Allen received a letter signed by several Vienna Town Council members asking citizens to vote for Jeannemarie Devolites during May's Republican primary, she was displeased. A few weeks earlier, she had been told during Vienna's Town Council election that Council members were nonpartisan. Yet this letter supporting Devolites, a Republican, seemed to contradict what she had heard.

"If they want to say support her, I wouldn't mind that," said Allen, who has lived in the same home in Vienna for 47 years. "It does seem to be that they blatantly asked people to vote for her, which I did not appreciate."

As candidates look for endorsements to give them an edge in the November elections for the General Assembly, several Vienna citizens are concerned that party politics may have crept into the nonpartisan Vienna Town Council.

The citizens are responding to two endorsement letters they had received, which were signed by Vienna mayor Jane Seeman and several Town Council members. The letters, sent earlier this spring, asked citizens to vote for Jeannemarie Devolites and Mike Polychrones in the Republican Primary.

"In my belief, I'm looking out for the best interests of Vienna," Seeman said on the letters.

BUT THE CONCERNED citizens believe that among other reasons, endorsing a candidate as a body may have party ramifications down the road.

"I'm worried about the pressure that could come on you if this pressure grows," said Tom Chittenden to several Town Council members during Monday's work session on this issue. In June, Chittenden had sent a letter to the Council, signed by 19 other town citizens, addressing his concerns on the Polychrones letter. "You're free right now to concentrate on Vienna."

Some citizens disliked the letters because as town representatives, the Council members who signed the letters didn't represent the citizens' views.

"Until it becomes part of the job description, I don't think they should be doing that," said former Town Councilman Bob McCormick, one of the signers of Chittenden's letter.

Councilman George Lovelace explained this view further during Monday's work session.

"I think we have to be in a position to have an open mind," Lovelace said, adding that nothing in the Town Code addresses this issue. "The citizens expect you to be receptive and open to the whole spectrum. ... If you attach the Council mantle to it, it has a different context."

While Council members attending the work session agreed that Council members, as individuals, had the right to endorse a candidate, they concluded that an endorsement document listing multiple Council members might be inappropriate.

"It's how we use the title and the perception of that title that gets us in trouble," said Councilman Sydney Verinder.

SEEMAN DEFENDED her actions, explaining the fine line between supporting someone as a private individual vs. a town official. In sending the letters, she used the rationale of what former Vienna mayor Charles Robinson would do in a similar situation.

"His rationale was for the best interests of Vienna, so that's what I tried to follow," Seeman said.

Councilwoman Maud Robinson, who signed the letter supporting Devolites and whose name and title were listed among the Council members supporting Mike Polychrones, said she votes for the candidate who would be best for Vienna. But she added that she is against partisan politics in local government.

"For years, I have, in my own little way, watched for the injection of party politics in Town Council," Robinson said.

While the Council came to no clear decision on how best to handle the situation, Chittenden hopes the dialogue will continue.

"They need to express legally in a town ordinance that all town activities, including elections, will be conducted on a nonpartisan basis by officers and staff," Chittenden said after the work session.

He continued, "If they get more identified with the political parties, then it's going to encourage political parties to come into town and try to organize."