By Steve DeVane | The Fayetteville Observer | August 23, 2022
The Fayetteville City Council voted 6-4 on Monday not to put on the ballot in November an initiative that could change the way its members are elected.
The decision came after the city attorney said there was a question about the validity of a petition that called for a referendum on the issue.
The Vote Yes organization filed a petition asking for a voter referendum to change the council by reducing the number of districts from nine to five and adding four at-large seats. The Cumberland County Board of Elections certified the petition, which elections officials say had eight more than the needed 5,000 valid signatures.
City Attorney Karen McDonald told the council during its meeting Monday that a state law — General Statute 163-218 — requires a copy of a notice of circulation and date of registration for a petition to be filed with the Board of Elections. She said Interim Elections Director Angie Amaro confirmed that no such registration or notice of circulation was submitted.
“The statute says that that is required, so therefore there remains a question as to the validity of the petition,” McDonald said.
Mayor Pro Tem Johnny Dawkins asked if there was any case law on a separate law — General Statute 160A-104.
McDonald said that law deals with changes to charter amendments. She said there is no case law regarding the law about the notice of circulation and date of registration.
Dawkins asked McDonald if her “guidance” was that it was unknown if the statute applies to the petition. It was unclear which law he was referencing.
McDonald said the law regarding the notice of circulation and date of registration applies to “any election or referendum.”
“Because the council has not received that, it appears to me to be a legitimate question as to the validity of the petition,” she said.
Dawkins said his concern is that it appears that the petition is valid, but there appears to be a problem with the petition.
“There will probably be litigation either way,” he said. “I wanted to let the people decide and let the people vote, but I understand the concern the council has.”
Councilman Deno Hondros said that he campaigned on being the voice of the people.
“I believe a referendum is the epitome of the voice of the people,” he said. “I don’t know how we can not let them decide.”
Councilman Mario “Be” Benavente made the motion not to proceed with the referendum. Councilman Derrick Thompson seconded it.
Others voting in favor of the motion were Mayor Mitch Colvin and council members Courtney Banks-McLaughlin, D.J. Haire and Shakeyla M. Ingram.
Voting in opposition were Dawkins, Hondros and council members Kathy Jensen and Brenda McNair.
Spokesman expresses disappointment
After the meeting, Bobby Hurst, a spokesman for the Vote Yes organization, said he was disappointed by the council’s decision. He said the group filled out paperwork at the Board of Elections regarding the petition.
“Everything that was handed to us was filled out and filed,” he said. “Every i was dotted and every t was crossed.”
Hurst said he has been told that another form might have been created since the organization filed its paperwork in March 2021.
“We should be grandfathered in or they should have notified us and said, ‘We created a new form,’” he said.
Hurst said he thinks politics might have played a role in the council’s decision, which he said was based on a “technicality.” He said he believes the decision will hurt the city, adding that the council needs members who see the “big picture.”
“We need some at-large representation,” he said. “Black or white, Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter.”
Hurst said the Vote Yes group will likely discuss its next steps, but even if the issue goes to court, it likely won’t be on the November ballot.
Amaro said in an email through a county spokesman last week that the deadline for getting the referendum on the ballot is Tuesday.
During the council meeting, McDonald talked about her correspondence with Amaro. McDonald questioned whether the petition was valid in a letter on behalf of the council to Amaro. The letter, dated Aug. 9, asked for a copy of the notice of circulation and date of registration for the petition and an opinion on whether or not the petition is valid.
Amaro said in her response to McDonald that the State Board of Elections maintains information and guidance for filing petitions and that neither the state board’s website nor the only petition form on its website mentions a notice of circulation.
“Neither a document identified as a notice of circulation, nor a North Carolina Petition Request was filed in my office for this petition,” Amaro said in the letter.
Amaro said in the letter that the determination of more than 5,000 qualified signatures is her certification of the petition.
“This petition is to the Fayetteville City Council, not the Board of Elections,” she said. “I am advised by the counsel to the State Board of Elections and the county attorney that whether the petition is valid is a question for the city council.”
Local news editor Steve DeVane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The original story can be viewed on The Fayetteville Observer.