A Hopewell judge suspended two members of the city’s elections board Monday after state attorneys said the continued presence of the two officials would cast a “cloud” over the upcoming elections.
Hopewell Circuit Judge William Edward Tomko III ordered that Electoral Board members David Silvestro and Herbert Townes — both Democrats — be temporarily suspended from office until a jury trial can be held to determine if they should be permanently removed for failing to properly perform their duties.
Barry Montgomery, an attorney for Silvestro and Townes, asked for the case to be delayed to give the two board members more time to prepare their defense and allow for a jury trial. Montgomery, who said he was only retained in the case late last week, argued Silvestro and Townes should remain in office during the legal proceedings.
“They’re certainly aware of the fact that they’re being sued by the state,” Montgomery said. “They’re going to be on their best behavior, so to speak.”
Lawyers from Attorney General Mark Herring’s office urged the judge to hear the case Monday, saying Silvestro and Townes had plenty of time to prepare.
“They sat on their hands,” said Assistant Attorney General Stephen Forster. “They failed to retain counsel until late last week.”
Montgomery said the local board members would typically be represented by the attorney general’s office, which is instead leading the state’s efforts to overhaul the Hopewell elections office.
Tomko said the Hopewell Democratic Committee can propose two replacement board members to oversee the local election process until the misconduct allegations are resolved. Under state law, judges appoint members of local electoral boards based on recommendations from local political parties.
Each board has three members, with two coming from the sitting governor’s party.
Last month, the State Board of Elections voted to seek the ouster of Silvestro and Townes after a string of election-related controversies in Hopewell. Silvestro and Townes backed Hopewell Registrar Yolanda Stokes’ recent attempt to print ballots with some City Council candidates’ names in all-capital letters.
The state intervened, telling the Hopewell election office that the ballot was unfair and that candidate names should be displayed the same way. Silvestro and Townes stood by the ballot at a heated board meeting in August, but Stokes eventually followed the state’s guidance and changed the document.
The attorney general’s office told the judge that the board has also failed to post meeting minutes in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, saying the people of Hopewell deserve public officials “who will follow the law.”
Senior Assistant Attorney General Heather Hays Lockerman said Silvestro and Townes are “unfit to continue in their duties until this matter is resolved.”
Hopewell Electoral Board Chairman Patrick Washington, a Republican who has testified against Silvestro and Townes, said he was not sure if the addition of two new temporary board members will mean the appointment of a new registrar.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said.