Smithfield debating transition to elected mayor

Published 12:31 pm Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Smithfield’s Town Council will on Sept. 5 further discuss a slate of changes to the town’s charter, which may or may not include transitioning to an elected mayor.

Smithfield has for decades chosen its mayor by a majority vote of its seven sitting council members. Changing this provision of the town’s charter would entail petitioning Virginia’s General Assembly when lawmakers reconvene in January.

Town Manager Michael Stallings said he’s working with Del. Emily Brewer, R-Isle of Wight, to introduce a bill that would amend Smithfield’s charter in several ways, most notably by moving the specified date for council elections from May to November.

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In 2021, the General Assembly passed a law mandating that any towns with May elections move them to the first Tuesday in November to coincide with the general election. The charter, which was last amended in 2000 and last substantially updated in 1982, still lists the May date.

At the council’s Aug. 28 committee meetings, Councilmen Randy Pack and Jeff Brooks each said they were in favor of leaving the mayoral selection process as-is. Councilman Mike Smith, however, said he’s heard from town residents who would prefer to elect the mayor themselves.

“There is a big push for this ‘transparency’ and trying to involve the public,” Smith said.

Pack noted that were the town to transition to a directly elected mayor, sitting council members would have to choose between running for reelection to their current seats or running in a separate mayoral race. Were they to lose the mayoral race, they would also lose their council seats.

The charter currently specifies that the mayor “shall have no other power except as a member of council” other than presiding over council meetings, but it contains some contradictory and outdated provisions that Stallings has proposed removing.

Among the language slated to be struck is a 1982 provision authorizing the mayor to “take command of the police” and “deputize such assistant policemen as may be necessary” during “times of public danger or emergencies.” Also slated to be struck is a 1954 provision allowing the council to appoint a member of Isle of Wight County’s School Board.

Prior to the council’s current method of deciding among themselves who will be mayor, the procedure was to give the role to the highest vote-getter from the most recent election.

Butler and Rountree said they would not favor returning to that method.

The town of Windsor, 15 miles south of Smithfield, has held separate mayoral elections for decades. A provision of Windsor’s charter not included in Smithfield’s prohibits the mayor from voting except to break a tie.