Vote Yes Fayetteville advocacy group files suit to put referendum on ballot

Case brought by supporters of changing City Council elections to be heard Thursday

Michael Futch | CityView Today | August 31, 2022

The Vote Yes Fayetteville advocacy group has filed a lawsuit to move forward with a referendum on changing the way City Council members are elected.

The Vote Yes Fayetteville advocacy group is suing the city and the Cumberland County Board of Elections seeking to have its plan to reshape City Council elections put before voters in a Nov. 8 referendum.

The civil lawsuit, which asks for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, was filed Tuesday in Cumberland County Superior Court.

Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons is expected to hear the case and rule on it at 10 a.m. Thursday.

A leader of the group said city officials and the Board of Elections are both aware of the suit.

“The issue of protecting citizens’ right to vote (is) too important not to pursue,” said Bobby Hurst, one of the Vote Yes organizers. “City Council’s actions are just an example of why the state’s general statutes give voice, through the petition process, to protect citizens’ rights when their government refuses to listen to them.”

The Vote Yes Fayetteville initiative calls for changing the way City Council members are elected.

Currently, the mayor is elected citywide and all nine council members are elected by district. Vote Yes would change the makeup to five single-district seats and four members elected at large. The mayor would still be elected at large.

“I would say our attorneys are pretty confident that citizens will be able to vote on this this November,” Hurst said. “The goal is to have this done quickly and have it on the ballot in November. We think we can have this wrapped up and get it on the 2022 ballot.”

Fayetteville lawyer Lonnie Player Jr. will represent Vote Yes in the courtroom.

The three plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Hurst, Karl Merritt and Suzanne Pennink, all residents of the city.

“The Vote Yes Fayetteville committee believes that there is a good-faith basis to prevail and request to have the referendum placed on the ballot in November,” Player said.

Tony Chavonne, publisher of CityView TODAY, is one of several former council members who started the Vote Yes drive.

Proponents of the plan say it will give voters more representation on the City Council because each voter would help choose the mayor, four at-large council members, and a district representative.

Those who oppose the initiative, including Mayor Mitch Colvin, say it would dilute representation by increasing the size of the districts.

“As you know, I’m limited as to what I can say,” Colvin said Wednesday. “I’m looking forward to getting to the bottom of this.”

In the introduction comments, the lawsuit against the city and county Board of Election says it was filed on behalf of the Vote Yes committee and city residents who signed the Vote Yes petition “for violation of plaintiffs’ federal and state constitutional and statutory rights to petition and to vote.”

The lawsuit says: “Plaintiffs are citizens and electors of Fayetteville who have successfully petitioned the City Council in accordance with North Carolina law for a ballot referendum posing the question whether certain members of the City Council of Fayetteville be elected at-large rather than from separate districts as is currently the practice.”

The lawsuit adds that “the legal requirements for a petition were satisfied and the Cumberland County Board of Elections certified plaintiffs’ request.”

After delaying action on the issue at two previous meetings, the City Council voted 6-4 on Aug. 22 against calling a referendum on the Vote Yes Fayetteville initiative.

During that regular meeting of the council, City Attorney Karen McDonald said questions persist about the validity of the petition calling for the referendum that was submitted by Vote Yes. McDonald said the council had directed her to contact the county Board of Elections to inquire about whether petition organizers followed the rules.

“I did that on Aug. 9,” McDonald told council members that night. “I did receive a response from the interim director for the Board of Elections on Aug. 16. And to this point, there appears to be — based on the response — that there remains a question regarding the validity of the petition that was submitted to the City Council for consideration.”

Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at mfutch@cityviewnc.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.

The original story can be viewed on CityView Today.

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