The Leesburg Town Council on Monday appointed retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Hugh “Bugs” Forsythe to fill a vacant seat, but not before discussing the nomination behind closed doors.
The appointment came after several rounds of nominations, in which each of five finalists for the position failed to get at least four votes from the six council members. The council then retreated into closed session before emerging 20 minutes later and unanimously approving the nomination of Forsythe.
It was one of the first official acts of the newly configured council under Mayor Kelly Burk, who vacated her council seat upon being sworn in as mayor. Forsythe will fill that seat until a Nov. 7 special election determines who will complete the term, which runs through 2018.
Thirteen Leesburg residents applied for the position. To narrow the field, town staff members polled the council, asking the members to choose their top three candidates. The top five vote-getters — Forsythe, Jed Babbin, Rusty Foster, Gwen Pangle and Joshua Thiel — were invited to give presentations to the council Monday.
After the presentations, the council members nominated each of the finalists in turn, deadlocking, 3 to 3, on each.
Although the council is officially nonpartisan, the influence of partisanship was evident in the first round of voting. Burk, Ron Campbell and Fernando “Marty” Martinez, who were elected with the support of the Democratic Party, backed Foster and Pangle. Kenneth Reid, Thomas S. Dunn II and Suzanne Fox, who were supported by the Republican Party, voted for Babbin and Forsythe.
Only Thiel received mixed support in the first round, from Campbell, Fox and Reid. However, when Thiel was nominated in the second round, Dunn and Campbell switched their votes, resulting in another tie. Campbell then moved that the council go into closed session, which he said “allows us to have some open and honest conversation.”
Dunn and Reid opposed the motion.
“This is [an] open process,” Dunn said. “When you run for office, you’re put under very strict scrutiny. . . . I don’t know what we’ve got to hide by going into closed session.”
Dunn declined to participate in the closed session. When the other council members returned to the chambers, Burk promptly nominated Forsythe, who was affirmed unanimously.
Burk said in an interview Tuesday that she felt it was appropriate to discuss the matter in closed session “to protect the applicants’ integrity” and avoid embarrassing them.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said in an interview that the Virginia Freedom of Information Act allows councils to discuss appointments in closed session. However, she said, it is better for such discussions to take place in public, particularly when an appointee to serve on the council is under consideration.
“This person is going to have the same vote as an elected official, so the people he is going to represent need the opportunity to see who that person is,” Rhyne said. “It is absolutely easier to have an open and frank discussion behind closed doors. But that’s not what the Freedom of Information Act does. It is to protect the public.”
Forsythe retired from the Air Force a decade ago, after 41 years of military service. A 1969 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, he is an operations controller for United Airlines and chairman of the board of Loudoun Volunteer Caregivers. He and his wife, Judy, have lived in Leesburg for 20 years, a town news release said.
In his presentation, Forsythe said he would focus on transportation issues, the relationship between the Leesburg Police Department and the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, and the balance of commercial and residential development. He said he is also concerned about race relations, the drug problem, and the growing number of brewpubs and other alcohol-related businesses.
The appointment of Forsythe marked the end of Katie Sheldon Hammler’s service on the council after three terms. Hammler failed to win a fourth term in the Nov. 8 election. Although she applied to fill the vacancy, the council members did not select her as one of the five finalists.
Because Hammler is no longer on the council, she will lose her office as president-elect of the Virginia Municipal League, to which she was elected last year. She said in an email Tuesday that she does not plan to run in the November special election.