Such online petitions are legally futile.
Under Virginia law, removal of elected officials such as Fairfax County school board members is handled differently from removal of appointed officials such as a principal or superintendent. According to Virginia Code, Section 24.2-230:
Appointed officials. “[A]n appointed officer shall be removed from office only by the person or authority who appointed him unless he is sentenced for a crime as provided for in [Section] 24.2-231 or is determined to be ‘mentally incompetent’ as provided for in [Section] 24.2-232.”
Accordingly, no petition signed by Virginians — regardless of the number of signers — can force the removal of an appointed official in Virginia. At best, a petition signed by Virginians can be presented in the hope of persuading the appointing authority.
However, the online petitions found at Change.org are unlikely to apply much political pressure on an appointing authority. They merely list the number of people who signaled their support, providing little information about who they are, much less whether they reside in the locality in question.
Elected officials. Members of the Fairfax County School Board are elected officials. They can be removed either (a) by the voters at the next election, or (b) by satisfaction of the removal procedures set forth under Virginia Code, Title 24.2, Article 7.
To start the removal process, a removal petition “must be signed by a number of registered voters who reside within the jurisdiction of the officer equal to ten percent of the total number of votes cast at the last election for the office that the officer holds.” (Virginia Code, Section 24.2-233.)
Furthermore, the removal petition must set forth statutory reasons for the requested removal, which are limited to the following:
- “neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties when that neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties has a material adverse effect upon the conduct of the office” [Virginia Code, Section 24.2-233.1(1)]; or
- upon conviction, after all rights of appeal have terminated, for any specifically listed offense [Virginia Code, Sections 24.2-233(2) through 24.2-233(4)], and the conviction “has a material adverse effect upon the conduct of such office.”
Even if an online removal petition lists reasons for removal that track the statutory language, the signature requirement will not be satisfied. Because a petition to remove a member of the Fairfax County School Board must be signed by people registered to vote in Fairfax County, any “votes” by unidentified people in support of an online petition — no matter how numerous — are legally useless. Online petitions offer no proof that the people supporting the petition are registered voters in the jurisdiction in question. Even if someone attached a copy of such an online petition to a removal petition filed in a Virginia court, it likely would not be counted toward the 10-percent threshold of registered voters.
Online petitions may be useful to allow people to express their opinions and beliefs about public officials and their actions. But they are legally insufficient under Virginia law to make any practical contribution to the removal of appointed or elected officials. Anyone interested in removing a public official from office in Virginia should not place their hopes on any online petition.
Emilio Jaksetic, a retired lawyer, is a Republican in Fairfax County.