By Myron B. Pitts | The Fayetteville Observer | Aug. 9, 2022
An effort to change how voters elect the Fayetteville City Council has hit a snag.
How big of a snag remains to be seen.
The Fayetteville City Council was scheduled to vote Monday night on a resolution to put a voter referendum on the November ballot. Under the referendum, city voters would decide whether they wanted to change the council by adding four at-large seats and cutting the number of single-member districts from nine to five.
The vote was to be a formality, required by state law. The Cumberland County Board of Elections certified a petition by the Vote Yes organization because it had met the threshold of 5,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot. The board concluded that 5,009 signatures were qualified of 5,721 submitted, according to a June 13 letter it sent to organizer Bobby Hurst.
However, Vote Yes organizers may have missed a step, according to council members’ discussion Monday. A notice of circulation of a petition should be registered with the county Board of Elections, according to General Statute 163-218. It is not clear if that was done, or if it is actually needed.
The council voted to table the resolution pending clarification on the issue. The board directed City Attorney Karen McDonald to come back with more information after talking with county officials.
McDonald told the council the referendum — considered a special election — can still be on the November ballot if the council votes for it at its Aug. 22 meeting or calls a special meeting before then.
Councilwoman Shakeyla Ingram made a motion that the council approve the resolution, contingent on whether the petition remained valid. If it was later found to be invalid, the council could vote to rescind its vote, she said.
“Citizens have done their due diligence to ensure they got whatever signatures they needed,” she said.
Ingram asked McDonald about a conversation the city attorney had with Rick Moorefield, the county attorney. McDonald said it was Moorefield’s opinion on G.S. 163-218 “that the statute was not applicable.”
Mayor Mitch Colvin clarified with McDonald that nothing to that effect had yet been submitted in writing.
Council members Kathy Jensen, Christopher Davis and Johnny Dawkins joined Ingram in her motion to approve the resolution, which failed. Opposed to the motion were Colvin, Courtney Banks-McLaughlin, D.J. Haire, Antonio Jones, Yvonne Kinston and Larry Wright.
Kinston said she had been prepared to vote for the resolution Monday.
“But based on the information we have received that there is a question at this time, I cannot support that motion, because I wanted to make sure everything was clear,” she said.
Moorefield on Tuesday morning would not confirm McDonald’s characterization of his comments in the conversation he had with her. He said he had not rendered a legal opinion because he had not been formally requested to do so by the interested parties, to include his client, in this case, the Board of Elections, or the city.
He did say, in reference to G.S. 163-218 and whether it applies to Vote Yes: “In 38 years I’ve been doing this, I have never run across this. It is an unusual situation.”
Angie Amaro, interim elections director, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Her staff said she had a scheduled day off.
Hurst said Neil Yarborough, a local lawyer, told him G.S. 163-218 “has no effect” on the Vote Yes petition. Hurst said organizers had received input from other lawyers, including some who worked for state legislators, and they all gave the petition a stamp of approval after some tweaks.
He said raising the issue of the notice of circulation was a “delay tactic” — for which he blamed Colvin. The mayor has been critical of the proposed change to the council’s structure.
“Let the citizens vote,” Hurst said.
Colvin says he sees the matter differently.
“Following the law is not a tactic, it’s a requirement,” he said. “Circumventing the law is never a good strategy.”
Fayetteville voters cast their ballots on July 26 for a new City Council. The rare summertime election had been postponed from the fall of 2021 because of delayed U.S. Census results.
The council, which could have four new members depending on the result of a runoff in District 3, is scheduled to be sworn in Thursday evening.
If voters approve a change to the council structure in November, it would not affect the council just elected.
A major change
If the ballot initiative passes, it would cause the biggest change to the council’s structure in more than 20 years, when it first adopted the current structure — a mayor elected citywide and nine council members elected in single-member districts.
The proposed change would add four at-large, or citywide seats, and reduce the number of districts from nine to five.
Supporters say this model will give voters more choices: A city resident will be able to vote for the mayor, four at-large council members and a council member in their district — six people, which is more than half the council.
Under the current model, they can vote for the mayor and a district representative. In the July 26 election, Fayetteville voters who went to the polls only had those two races on the ballot.
Vote Yes supporters say the at-large seats will produce a council with more council members who see the big picture, not just the concerns of their district.
Critics of Vote Yes say the at-large seats would be a problem. The district model puts the council members closest to the people, they say. At-large council members may overlook district concerns, the thinking goes; plus, reducing the number of districts means the individual districts will be even larger. The end result: More expensive races that could price out too many potential candidates.
Some people have questioned the motives of the people behind Vote Yes. The petition started in 2020, a year when Black Lives Matter protests gripped the nation, and in Fayetteville led to a protest and riots downtown.
In the previous year, city voters elected a historic number of Black members — eight out of 10 seats — in the fall 2019 election.
The local NAACP opposes the restructuring, which it believes is designed to undercut Black voting influence and choices.
Leaders in the Vote Yes movement include former mayors Tony Chavonne and Nat Robertson and several former council members but no prominent Black voices, at least among the original signers of the petition.
Former Councilman Chalmers McDougald, who is Black, was listed as one of the original signatories but later dropped his support of the effort.
Chavonne spearheaded a prior effort to add at-large seats to the council in 2007. Voters approved the change, but it was blocked from going into effect by a U.S. Department of Justice official on grounds that at-large seats harmed Black voters’ ability to elect the candidate of their choice.
Several circumstances have changed since that time, however. For one, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision in the Voting Rights Act that had been part of the basis for the DOJ’s decision.
Secondly, Black candidates have been successful in recent years, including winning at-large races for mayor, sheriff and county commissioner. Additionally, most of the county’s District Court judges are Black.
Myron B. Pitts can be reached at email@example.com or 910-486-3559.
The original story can be viewed on the Fayetteville Observer.