By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Less than two months before the General Election, six candidates seeking a seat on the Norfolk City Council are busily working to gather support in the final stretch of the campaign.
But the election to fill the Superward 7 seat, currently being held on an interim basis by businesswoman Danica Royster, is overshadowed by calls for her to resign from the seat in order to continue her candidacy and to be replaced by another interim selection by the council.
One of her rivals, activist Michael Muhammad and Norfolk Council member Paul Riddick have called from her to leave the seat.
The key reason: they claim that she promised not to run for the seat when she was selected as an interim council member in January. However, that claim is in dispute.
They say this gives her the unfair advantage of incumbency over the other five contenders, since she was not elected by the voters in the district.
Fourth Ward Councilman Paul Riddick has called for Royster to resign from the seat so she can run on an equal footing with her rivals.
Riddick noted this in a letter on August 26 to the Mayor and fellow council members who he said ignored tradition by not telling applicants seeking the interim post they could not run in an election to fill it.
Although this is an informal standing policy imposed by the council for several decades, it is not bound by Constitutional law nor written in Norfolk’s Charter. Rather, it has been a standing agreement among council members.
Riddick said in his Aug. 26 letter, “We were introduced to a person (Royster) who told us up front that she intended to run for the seat. Yet, we still allowed her to fill the vacancy. She has been in meetings, closed and regular, and allowed to vote on issues some of which were sensitive. I still say this is wrong.”
Riddick in his letter proposed that Royster resign in order to continue her candidacy and “be on the same footing as the other candidates”.
Royster, through a campaign spokesperson, according to WAVY-TV 10, said she would not relinquish her post on council nor quit the race.
Royster was selected in January 2021 to replace Angelia Williams Graves, who left the Superward 7 Council seat, to run for the 90th House District vacated by Joseph Lindsey who was named a Norfolk Circuit Court Judge by the General Assembly.
Although there were 12 residents of the ward who applied to be selected as the interim, only three of them were interviewed by council members during their January 12, 2021 work session.
Vivian Paige, an accounting professor at Christopher Newport University (CNU); Abdul Aswad, a community activist; and Royster were the only ones interviewed.
The applicants were asked a set of pre-determined questions including if they would run for the seat if they were selected.
Norfolk Mayor Kenneth C. Alexander attended in-person as seen on a YouTube recording. Council persons Andria McClellan, Mamie Johnson, Courtney Doyle, and Tommy Smigiel were present but participated virtually because of COVID-19 restrictions. According to the minutes of the meeting, Councilman Riddick participated by phone.
Aswad was not asked if he would run if he were selected. According to the You Tube video, Paige and Royster were asked.
Paige said she would not run.
Royster said she “ had not considered” and would address the job of being an interim if selected.
After the interviews, Royster was selected by the council unanimously as the interim.
It is unclear if any member of the council, the mayor, or other city officials discussed or noted publicly the informal policy – or tradition not written in the charter – that an individual who is selected to fill a seat on an interim basis understood that they had to agree not to run for the seat.
Nor is it clear if Royster told any member of the media or a city official she would run at any point after she was selected.
Riddick in his August 26 letter to his colleagues alluded to it, but did not mention examples of the informal agreement’s application.
In three past instances in the appointment of an interim, the applicants for the interim job were instructed they would be considered to serve as an interim if they agreed not to run for the seat in an election that had to be called within three months after they were appointed, according to tradition.
In 2010 Superward representative Councilperson Daun Hester, the first Black woman elected to the panel, resigned after losing an election against then-incumbent Mayor Paul Fraim.
The second instance was in 2015 when Councilman Anthony Burfoot was elected Norfolk City Treasurer and resigned.
In 2016, Councilman Anthony Protogyrou had to leave his seat on the council when he decided to run for mayor.
In the case of Hester and Protogyrou, council members must resign if they run for a colleague’s or the Mayor’s seat.
Another informal council law.
But there was an exception.
After a lively Superward 7 race between incumbent Daun Hester and challenger Third Ward Councilman Herbert Collins, in 2000, Collins lost but did not have to resign.
The next year, the council adopted the rule declaring that if a sitting council member ran for mayor or other council member’s seat, they would have to resign their seat.
Graves resigned to take her House seat on January 12, the same day Royster was selected as the interim.
Graves was reelected to the General Assembly in May of 2021 for a four-year term. So under the guidelines of the Charter, an election had to be held to fill the
next election of council. Since there were no council elections scheduled for 2021, the November 2021 contest was slated.
Royster’s four other challengers have not called for her to resign from the council nor quit the race.
Candidate Jason Inge said the situation has tainted the election process and built mistrust among voters and civic leaders.
“I knew this tradition, because when I spoke with a city council member about the vacancy they informed me, if selected I would not be able to run in the following election. I said that is ok.”
Candidate Jackie Glass circulated a letter to the media and public dated Sept. 8 citing what she called examples of the city’s alleged mishandling of the election process.
She said “community members were told not to apply for the appointment before the deadline because they could not run and/or the council had selected their person. Our council was going to disenfranchise residents for a year and a half by not even holding a special election until May 2022.”
Glass said, “Council failed to announce publicly that they officially called a special election. A small group of us found out due to the appointee stating that they intended to run in November at the Democratic Breakfast on Saturday, April 3rd.”
Glass said she called the City of Norfolk’s Department
of Elections on April 5th and 7th, and “they had no idea that a special election was being called.”
When she called the State of Virginia Department of Elections on April 9, she said neither did they know.
Glass cited Section 7.1 of the City Charter and said she “provided the State with evidence of a special election and submitted a trouble ticket to the State to update their website” of an election.
Glass said she would like to see the city charter spell out rules regarding how council members are replaced.
“The bottom line, this story is bigger than a request to resign,” Glass said. “I believe the victims are the appointee and the people of Norfolk… being manipulated by power and influence that chooses not to
serve them in a meaningful way as well as the candidates who are being deprived of a fair election.”