By Caroline Leak
Electoral board members milling around the Buena Vista City Clerk’s office murmured in disbelief as the returns came in Tuesday night.
In a stunning upset, City Councilman Billy Fitzgerald unseated Mayor Larry Tolley, winning by almost 400 votes. Immediately after the votes were counted, Fitzgerald said this showed that Buena Vista residents wanted change and that he is up for the challenge.
City Hall workers, including City Manager Jay Scudder, expressed surprise at the outcome. “The only thing that I can say is sometimes people just feel like they want change,” he said. “Sometimes that doesn’t reflect on someone’s character or the job they’ve done while in office.”
Buena Vista has a “strong manager” system, meaning the mayor is more of a figurehead than a CEO. Still, Fitzgerald’s win got the city’s attention.
Christ Church Warden Andy Wolfe said he did not expect Fitzgerald to win, much less by a landslide.
“I think the mayor has done a pretty good job all around,” Wolfe said. “Billy [Fitzgerald] certainly is more outspoken than Mayor Tolley. I don’t know if that’s been good or bad.”
Douglas Harwood, publisher of The Rockbridge Advocate, said Buena Vista politics could heat up.
“Billy has been pretty critical of the city manager, so that might be interesting to watch,” Harwood said.
Wolfe fears this could lead to a more adversarial relationship between the city council and city employees. At a time when the city is trying to default on loans that built a city-owned golf course, Wolfe is not completely clear on what Fitzgerald’s vision is for Buena Vista.
“A lot of people want this whole mess with the golf course resolved, and so does Billy,”
Harwood said. He added that improving infrastructure, beyond the main streets of Buena Vista, was a key talking point for Fitzgerald that appealed to voters.
Harwood mentioned the community’s mounting frustrations with the drawn-out legal battle over the Vista Links Golf Course debt, saying it was a likely factor in Fitzgerald’s win.
“This is going to be an educational and learning experience, working with them [the new mayor and council members], getting them up to speed on the city’s issues, the city’s finances,” Scudder said, emphasizing the need to resolve the golf course controversy.
The new city council members Daniel Staton and write-in candidate Tyson Cooper will also have a hand in how the city moves forward from this ongoing legal battle.
The council will likely appoint a replacement for Fitzgerald in January.
“The mayor sets the agenda,” Harwood said. “But the mayor doesn’t rule the roost by a long shot.”