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* * The Board owes Erica Williams an apology

Here in the USA, we’re blessed to live under a set of foundational tenets of democracy that form the cornerstones of our republic. For example, in the eyes of the law, everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

We all take this as a matter of faith, except apparently some members of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors. That is, except by the Republican members. Because two years ago, in February 2016, these Republicans, three of which still serve, punished Circuit Court Clerk Erica Williams for a perceived transgression she never did.

Background: In November, 2015, Williams was re-elected to a second 8-year term. Shortly thereafter, she declined to re-appoint four members of her staff and a fifth refused reappointment. Reasons are widely speculative, but obviously she felt they were unresponsive to her needs as head of the clerk’s office. She had the full legal power to do this; the statute is clear. Other constitutional officers have done exactly the same in the past.

In response, Republicans on the Board, without justification, voted as a block to remove the $20,700 annual supplemental pay she’d been receiving as part of a Memorandum of Understanding she and the other Constitutional officers had signed. There was no trial. No evidence was presented to the Board. This was merely a partisan witch hunt by Republican Board members who reacted with vengefulness because they’d lost an election. In fact, Williams won by a landslide, a margin of 64% to 35%.

Thereafter, the county’s most partisan Republicans, spearheaded by newcomer James Willis, undertook a futile effort. On March 1, 2018 the State Supreme Court threw out the petition, citing that many signers were not informed that they must sign “under penalty of perjury,” which may have kept many of them from signing.

The ill-fated petition drive was not only unsuccessful, but philosophically a bad idea because the voting process is not well-served if a winner can be removed because of an unpopular decision. Rightfully, Virginia sets a high bar for removal of someone legally elected, making removal possible only under extreme conditions of neglect of duty, criminality, or misuse of the office. Williams’ situation clearly did not apply, as she was never accused of a crime. Mr. Willis’ frivolous war against her was doomed to fail from the start.

Because Willis and his accomplices obtained the requisite number of signatures, the County was forced to act, providing a legal challenge to Williams. Williams also wisely employed legal representation. Because Williams (who now uses her married surname Conner) ultimately prevailed, the County, and by the County I mean you and I as taxpayers, incurred her legal expenses (over $26,000) as well. What this means is that tens of thousands of our tax dollars that could have gone into other County services, instead were frittered away.

Responding to the news of the failure of his effort, Willis was quoted in the local daily newspaper, “We’re disappointed, but we started in this process knowing it was worth doing.” Oh? Maybe if it was “worth it,” he and his collaborators should pay for it!

In addition to the monetary loss we’ve incurred, the matter has been stressful to Erica, as she expressed when I met with her recently. She steadfastly refused to comment on the situations that led to the dismissal of the four employees, only to say she did it to improve the services provided by her office. In spite of all the stress, Erica was composed and professional, never once lashing out at her accusers. She mentioned to me that she took her oath seriously and that she worked every day to uphold that oath, even under the circumstances.

Furthermore, this action has cast a pall over our County, both in how a newcomer can lead a challenge to a fair and legal election, and in how acrimony and recrimination can distract us from the health, economy, education, and welfare we should be focused on. By removing her supplement, the Board validated and lent credence to the recall effort, damaging its own reputation.

Mr. Willis and his collaborators’ reputations are damaged, as they came across as vindictive and incompetent. And people who signed the petition come across as uninformed and easily manipulated, lending their signature without fully understanding their legal responsibilities.

This episode has shown any outside observers that our county is pre-occupied by petty, internecine squabbling, an image none of us want.

If the members of the Board of Supervisors have a shred of integrity, they will admit their error in judgment, reinstate her supplement immediately, and compensate her for two years of lost supplement with interest, unfairly withheld from her. And the Board will issue her a formal, public apology.

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