Vote Yes advocates sue Fayetteville City Council to force referendum onto November ballots

A judge is to hear the case at 10 a.m. Thursday in Cumberland County Superior Court.

Paul Woolverton | The Fayetteville Observer | August 31, 2022

Election officials wait for votes at a polling site at Smith Recreaation Center on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. Andrew Craft, The Fayetteville Observer.

Frustrated advocates for the Vote Yes referendum to dramatically change the structure of the Fayetteville City Council filed a lawsuit on Tuesday to try to force the Council to put the referendum on November election ballots.

They sued the City Council and the county Board of Elections.

The matter is to be heard at 10 a.m. Thursday in Cumberland County Superior Court before Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons. It will be in courtroom 3B.

The Vote Yes Committee had submitted a petition with more than 5,000 signatures — the minimum required — asking to have Fayetteville voters decide in November whether to modify the council’s elections. The committee wants to convert four of the council seats from district seats to citywide seats. Currently, the 10-person council has nine district seats plus the mayor, who is elected citywide.

The change would vastly alter the power dynamics of the council. Advocates say more citywide seats will make the City Council more responsive to the needs of the whole city; critics say the plan would dilute the power of Black voters.

The City Council voted 6-4 on Aug. 22 to keep the referendum off the ballot.

Read all about it:Fayetteville City Council decides not to put ‘Vote Yes’ initiative on November ballot

More background:Effort to change Fayetteville City Council hits snag. Here’s what’s next.

Watch the City Council vote:City Council rejects Vote Yes petition

Were required items missing in the paperwork?

The council rejected the referendum after City Attorney Karen McDonald said it is uncertain whether the petition the Vote Yes Committee submitted to the City Council is legally valid. She said Interim Cumberland County Elections Director Angie Amaro told her the county Board of Elections has not received two items that state election law requires when people conduct a signature petition drive to bring a referendum before the voters:

  • A notice that a petition is being circulated to call for an election or referendum.
  • The date that the petition was being registered with the county Board of Elections, which the law says marks the start date for signatures to be collected. Another law gives petition organizers a year from that date to collect the minimum number of signatures.

“Miss Amaro confirmed that no such registration or notice of circulation was submitted,” McDonald said. “The statute says that is required, so therefore there remains a question as to the validity of the petition.”

In their lawsuit, plaintiffs Bobby Hurst, Karl Merritt and Suzanne Pennink say Vote Yes advocates met the legal requirements. Hurst is the chair of the Vote Yes Committee and is a former member of the City Council.

They say they met on March 19, 2021, with previous Elections Director Terry Robertson to learn what was needed to start the petition drive and they submitted paperwork she said was required.

A year later, on March 18, 2022, the lawsuit says, the Vote Yes Committee returned its signed petitions. The county elections staff subsequently found that 5,009 of 5,721 signatures were valid, a document in the lawsuit says.

Hurst said on Wednesday the Vote Yes Committee strove to file its paperwork correctly.

“We dotted I’s and crossed T’s. We were very careful to make sure that this was going to be right,” he said. “And so this was a shock and surprise to us, and was to a lot of other people as well.

“So that’s why we said, you know, we’ve got to push this, because this is just not right, it’s just not fair,” Hurst said.

Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin, who has opposed the Vote Yes proposal, said on Wednesday he could not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but he hopes that the case leads to clarity in the legal requirements for such petitions.

“I just look forward to getting to the bottom of everything,” Colvin said. The underlying issue of a petition’s validity has not been addressed, he said, “So I think that’s the big question that the courts or this process will help us get to the bottom of.”

Senior North Carolina reporter Paul Woolverton can be reached at 910-261-4710 and pwoolverton@gannett.com.

The original story can be viewed on The Fayetteville Observer.

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