Why Vienna Practices Nonpartisan Politics

Why Vienna Practices Nonpartisan Politics

Town officials insist town government will stay clear of party politics

When several Vienna Town Council members' names had appeared in mailings sent in support of Del. Jeannemarie Devolites and then-council member Mike Polychrones for their respective Republican primary races last May, the action caused some concerned Vienna citizens to question whether party politics was encroaching upon town governance.

The council, in response, held a Sept. 29 work session attended by several council members, where they grappled with the endorsement issue. While those present agreed that party politics had no place in town government, they questioned when it was appropriate to support a candidate as a public official.

Although the meeting came to no set conclusion, council members insist that the Vienna Town Council would remain nonpartisan.

"I see no benefit for having partisan politics. I don't know anyone who wants it that way," said councilman George Lovelace in an interview after the meeting. "We have the opportunity to solve problems as we see them."

Several of the council members at the meeting said afterward that Vienna town council members don't identify their party affiliation because party issues don't have a place in town affairs. As at -large representatives of Vienna, nonpartisan politics allows council members to approve traffic calming measures or sidewalk repairs without having citizens worry about favoritism or recourse.

"I don't think [partisan politics] are constructive or healthy in local governments like towns," said councilwoman Maud Robinson.

Vienna mayor Jane Seeman agreed. "We just feel that national politics have no place in Vienna. Their issues are not our issues," Seeman said.

As such, when Vienna citizens elect council members in May, the ballot doesn't identify the candidate's party.

"Vienna is small enough that [cititzens] know the candidate personally. [Candidates] should be held accountable," Seeman said. "If you can't run on your own record, I would never personally as a party to help me."

WHY TOWN ELECTIONS are nonpartisan may have roots from the 1950s or as early as the turn of the twentieth century. Mary Jo Fields of the Virginia Municipal League said at the turn of the century, a strong municipal reform movement occurred which discouraged party politics in local governments like towns.

"It was a reaction to a Tammany Hall kind of government, where there's very strong partisan politics," Fields said.

Robinson conjectured that the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from running for an office in a partisan election, might have had some influence on Vienna's town government, as many families from the 1950s onward wanted to participate on town council yet worked for the federal government.

"Had elections been partisan, they wouldn't be able to run for office," Robinson said.

Yet whether town governments are officially nonpartisan seems unclear. The Town of Vienna, like the Town of Herndon, passed an amendment to the town charter last year that states that the town would keep elections nonpartisan. But nowhere else in the Vienna Town Code are there guidelines for town council members on what partisan activities are acceptable.

Furthermore, the Code of Virginia itself only implies that elections for local government offices aren't identified by party affiliation. In 24.2-613 regarding form of ballot, it says that candidates for federal, statewide and General Assembly offices only shall be identified by political party on the ballot, but makes no mention about local government offices.

That ambiguity is one of the reasons why Vienna citizens like Tom Chittenden approached the council on the endorsement issue.

"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," said Chittenden for an Oct. 1 article. "If they get more identified with the political parties, then it's going to encourage the political parties to come into town and try to organize."

THE LACK OF GUIDELINES also fails to direct how town council members can support candidates as a town representative. In the Town of Herndon, for instance, individual council members have supported a candidate, but the body as a whole has never endorsed a candidate, according to public information officer Robin Runser.

"We do that for the best interests of Vienna," said Robinson of her name on the two endorsement mailings.

The issue of whether partisan politics have a place in local government isn't going to disappear soon, as legislative attempts have been made to insert party politics into local jurisdictions as late as this year. A bill introduced in January 2003 and sponsored by Richard "Dick" Black (R-32) called for party designation on the local ballot, unless a locality specifies nonpartisan elections by charter or ordinance.

The bill, HB 1405, failed to pass committee stage, as did its sibling bill in the Senate that had been introduced by Sen. Ken T. Cuccinelli, II (R-37), SB 769.

Citizens "can ask any one of us to solve any problem, and not have to worry about its impact in the future," argued Lovelace for nonpartisan town politics. He added that for the first 14 years on town council, no one asked him about his party affiliation. "In all parts of town, I was able to be effective."