The ousted Hopewell general registrar is suing the city’s Electoral Board to get her job back.
Yolanda Stokes, fired by the city’s Electoral Board in March after attempting to print what the state said were unfair ballots in last year’s City Council election, also names the state Board of Elections and city of Hopewell officials as respondents in a petition that’s pending in the city’s Circuit Court. The lawsuit asks a judge to throw out the Electoral Board’s 3-0 decision to fire Stokes from the position she held for less than a year.
A lawyer for the Electoral Board said the lawsuit is unfounded and a waste of time and money.
Stokes, who is representing herself in the litigation filed March 15, said Tuesday that her removal was unjustified and that the Electoral Board did not inform her of the reasoning she was fired.
“I think this action doesn’t support voter representation in the city,” Stokes said.
Stokes, hired in May 2018, came under fire during her tenure because of a failed plan to allow some City Council candidates to have their names appear in all capital letters on the ballot for last November’s election.
At an August Electoral Board hearing, two Democratic members of the panel — David W. Silvestro and Herbert F. Townes Jr. — backed Stokes’ plan, a move that drew criticism as providing an unfair advantage to candidates whose names would appear in all caps. The state Board of Elections intervened, telling the Hopewell election office that the ballot was unfair and that candidate names should be displayed the same way. Stokes eventually followed the state’s guidance and changed the document.
On March 1, a Hopewell jury found Silvestro and Townes had each “neglected or misused his office or was incompetent in the performance of his duties” at the end of a civil trial where state officials sought their ouster amid a series of election-related controversies. Townes and Silvestro denied that they failed to faithfully do their jobs or that their actions had any adverse effect on the administration of the city’s election.
Hopewell Circuit Judge William Edward Tomko III had suspended Townes and Silvestro in October while that case was before his court, and in their place the judge appointed George Uzzle and Sheila A. Mickelson to the panel. Following their trial, the judge ordered Townes and Silvestro removed from the panel effective March 1.
Five days after that date, Uzzle, the committee’s chairman, and Mickelson, the vice chairwoman, joined the third member of the board, William “Bill” Anderson, in voting to remove Stokes.
Stokes argued in court papers that the Electoral Board may have lacked the power to oust her because she said Uzzle and Mickelson’s temporary tenure on the panel should have effectively ended on March 1, the same day that Townes and Silvestro’s suspensions also came to an end.
The former registrar also said her firing violated a “memorandum of understanding” with the Electoral Board that she said runs through June 30. Stokes wrote in her court papers that she couldn’t perform her duties because of her “wrongful removal.”
Saemi Murphy, the Electoral Board’s attorney, said in a written response that Tomko’s order did not end Uzzle and Mickelson’s tenure on the panel. Murphy also wrote that Stokes failed to show that she was entitled to “any contractual obligations” from the Electoral Board.
“The allegations raised by Ms. Stokes are unfounded, and it is unfortunate that the Hopewell Electoral Board has to spend time and money to defend their actions,” Murphy said Tuesday.
Electoral Board members declined to go into detail about their rationale for terminating Stokes on the day of the vote. Murphy declined to comment Tuesday on why the board fired Stokes, citing the pending litigation. Uzzle and Anderson could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday. Mickelson declined comment.
Less than a week after the Electoral Board’s vote, Deputy Registrar Darlene White was sworn in as the city’s acting general registrar on March 11.
In their own court filings, the state Attorney General’s Office and city officials said Stokes’ petition failed to show that Hopewell or Virginia had breached any contract with Stokes.
In a March 11 letter to city officials included as an exhibit with her lawsuit, Stokes accuses city staff of orchestrating her removal. Stokes, who said she has a disability affecting her mobility, said she was retaliated against following her complaints to city staff about the accessibility of the registrar’s office for people with disabilities.
“I believe the Electoral Board’s removal of me without following ‘fully’ the intended procedures prescribed by the Virginia Code relative to the removal of elected or appointed officials to be threatening, intimidating and otherwise hostility [sic] toward me because of race, sex, disability and political affiliation,” Stokes wrote.
Stefan Calos, an attorney representing the city, could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.