The Prince William County School Board “has both the duty and the sole authority” to appoint a temporary replacement for Brentsville representative Gil Trenum, a Navy reservist preparing for a yearlong deployment to Africa, according to an “unofficial opinion” issued by the Virginia attorney general’s office this morning.
The opinion goes on to say that Trenum has already effectively given his notice to temporarily vacate his office, triggering the process to appoint his interim replacement.
“In Prince William County, the appointing authority to fill vacancies on the school board is the remaining members of the school board,” the opinion says. “Here, the school board member in question has given that notice, and thus he has now been ‘relieved from the duties of office’ commencing on the date of his deployment, and the replacement statute is in effect.”
All of that is important because Trenum’s pending deployment has sparked a politically charged dispute over who has the authority, under Virginia law, to appoint a temporary replacement when an elected official is called to active-duty military service.
At issue is whether Trenum has formally given written notice to temporarily vacate his seat and whether the school board must honor his wishes by appointing one of three Brentsville residents Trenum recommended to serve while he is out of the country.
Trenum, a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves, has been called to a joint command in Djibouti, located in the Horn of Africa, to serve in the anti-terrorism mission named “Operation Enduring Freedom.”
There’s no question, however, about what will happen when Trenum returns. He will return to his elected position, which he won with more than 90 percent of the vote last November when he ran unopposed.
State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th, released the opinion a little more than an hour after a group of Republican state delegates and senators gathered for a 10 a.m. press conference in front of the Prince William school division’s administration building in Manassas.
Led by Del. Rich Anderson, R-51st, the group blamed School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers for politicizing the process and urged the school board to “honor” Trenum’s military service by “acting in good faith” to appoint one of his chosen replacements.
Anderson was joined at the press conference by state Sen. Dick Black, R-13th, and five other Prince William-area state delegates, Scott Lingamfelter, R-31st; Jackson Miller, R-50th; Bob Marshall, R-13th; Mark Dudenhefer, R-2nd; and Tim Hugo, R-2nd. All but Marshall are military veterans.
Prince William County Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, also joined the group of speakers along with four local veterans.
During the press conference and before the opinion was released, Anderson acknowledged that the attorney general had been asked to opine on the issue.
But Anderson suggested, in his remarks, that the opinion would likely be tainted by politics.
“From reading the plain language of the code,” and seeking advice from the Virginia Division of Legislative Services, which helps lawmakers compose legislation, Anderson said he believes he and his Republican colleagues “are on solid ground.”
“I simply don’t want to see some contortion, in an attorney general’s ruling, of the code of Virginia that tries to trigger what is an improper action,” Anderson said.
But Surovell dismissed that notion Thursday, saying the opinion was written by staff attorney G. Timothy Oksman, not Attorney General Mark Herring (D), which Surovell said should clear it of any such suspicion.
Surovell further said the opinion places the issue of Trenum’s replacement squarely in the school board’s court.
“The law is crystal clear. The Virginia Supreme Court has already decided on this,” Surovell said. “If they have an issue with what the opinion says, they need to take it up with Supreme Court.”
The opinion relies on two legal precedents: Title 2.2 section 2802 of the Code of Virginia and a 2005 state Supreme Court case, “Gordon E. Hannett, Commonwealth’s Attorney for the County of Floyd.”
In that case, the Virginia Supreme Court held that the circuit court in Floyd County did not act “unreasonably” when it appointed a replacement for Hannett, who asserted he could perform his duties while deployed to Iraq.
The opinion also notes that the Virginia Attorney General’s office issued an opinion prior to the supreme court ruling that was effectively nullified by the Hannett decision.
The opinion further said a new state law that came after ruling applies only to “constitutional officers,” not school board members. “Even if the opinion were still effective, it would be inapplicable to a school board member, who is not a constitutional officer,” Oksman wrote in a footnote to the decision.
Surovell said Trenum’s situation could be remedied by passing a new law that specifically addresses school board members who leave for military deployments. The law passed in the wake of the Hannett decision only references “constitutional officers,” which include commonwealth’s attorneys, sheriffs, clerks of the circuit court and elected treasurers.
In the meantime, it’s not entirely clear what will happen next.
Contacted by telephone Thursday, Sawyers said the school board will proceed with appointing a temporary replacement for Trenum via its usual process for doing so, which means opening it up to all registered voters in the Brentsville District, not just those suggested by Trenum.
Trenum, meanwhile, said he had yet to read the opinion but maintains that he will not formally give written notice regarding vacating the seat until the school board provides “some reasonable indication” it will appoint one of his named candidates.
“I’ve been consistent on that,” he said.
Sawyers said the school board would likely hold a special meeting to begin that process soon.
Sawyers acknowledged the opinion does not keep the board from choosing one of Trenum’s selected appointees, but said he would have “a hard time” doing so because of the actions of school board member Willie Deutsch, of the Coles District.
Sawyers said Deutsch acted improperly by sharing a memo, published on the conservative blog The Sheriff of Nottingham, which purportedly outlined local Democrats’ political strategy for denying Trenum’s request to pick his replacement. Sawyers has called the memo “a fraud.”
“This process has been completely tainted by Mr. Deutsch,” Sawyers said. “I will ultimately base my decision on who is in front of us.”
Sawyers said he was glad to have requested the attorney general’s opinion to ensure the process of appointing a temporary replacement is both legal and proper.
“I’m glad to be moving forward,” he said. “We need to make sure every person in the Brentsville District has an equal opportunity to that seat and we just have to follow the legal process.”