City Council votes to appeal ruling that could lead to its restructuring

The council voted 4-3 to appeal a ruling allowing a referendum seeking to change the structure of council districts.

CityView Today | September 2, 2022

By Greg Barnes | Photos by Tony Wooten

The Fayetteville City Council voted 4-3 in an emergency meeting Friday to appeal a ruling allowing a referendum seeking to change the structure of council districts.

Correction: Former Mayor Marshall Pitts left office in 2005. Voters approved a referendum to change the council’s structure the following year, when Tony Chavonne, was mayor. The U.S. Department of Justice rejected the referendum in 2007.

The Fayetteville City Council voted in an emergency session Friday morning to appeal a judge’s ruling to allow a referendum on the November ballot that could change how people vote for council members.

On Thursday, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons ruled that the Vote Yes Fayetteville advocacy group had met the requirements to put the referendum on the General Election ballot. 

On Friday, the City Council voted 4-3 to appeal that decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals.

Mayor Mitch Colvin and council members Mario Benavente, Derrick Thompson and D.J. Haire voted to appeal. Council members Johnny Dawkins, Deno Hondros and Kathy Keefe-Jensen voted against it.

Council members Shakeyla Ingram, Courtney Banks-McLaughin and Brenda McNair did not attend the meeting.

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. 

If approved, the Vote Yes referendum would change the makeup to five single-district seats and four members elected at large. The mayor would still be elected at large.

Proponents say the proposal would 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. They maintain that voters would have more say because they would be voting for more than half of the council. They also say council members of single districts often look out for their own constituents’ interests at the cost of the city as a whole.

Opponents say converting four single-district council seats into at-large seats could dilute minority representation on the council.

Ammons’ ruling

Ammons ordered that the referendum be placed on the ballot in response to a lawsuit filed by three of the Vote Yes Fayetteville group’s leaders – Bobby Hurst, Karl Merritt and Suzanne Pennink. Those three sought a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction.

A day after Ammons’ ruling, the City Council met in an emergency session, almost all of which was held in private. After the meeting’s conclusion, Colvin said the vote to seek an opinion from the Court of Appeals was largely a procedural matter

Colvin and others question whether a petition by Vote Yes Fayetteville was valid. The petition garnered more than 5,000 signatures supporting the referendum.

“The statute says a notice of circulation is required for any petition in the state of North Carolina,” the mayor said. 

He said that a notice of circulation notifies the local Board of Elections on the goals of a petition and that it is required at the beginning of the process.

“The election board conceded – as well as the Vote Yes people – that that had not been done,” Colvin said.

Hurst, one of Vote Yes Fayetteville’s organizers, disputes that assertion.

In Ammons’ courtroom on Thursday, Hurst said, city and election board officials could not define what a notice of circulation even was.

“I don’t know why they’re continually bringing that up,” Hurst said. “I mean, to me it’s kick the can down, let’s drag it out to where it won’t be on the November ballot this year. And then we’ll have to deal with it later or make them go out and do another petition.”

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

A racial issue?

The City Council now has only two white council members. For years, some community leaders have questioned whether the goals of Vote Yes Fayetteville are racially motivated.

Colvin would not go there. He said the issue of race is a question that should be asked to the leaders of Vote Yes Fayetteville. 

“What I will say is it certainly makes it more difficult for minorities, as well as, you know, gives an advantage for those who can raise resources to win. So I think maybe there is some classism in that calculation,” Colvin said.

But he called it “an incredible coincidence” that the last time the issue came up was toward the end of Marshall Pitts’ tenure as mayor in 2005. Chavonne became mayor that year. 

In 2006, Fayetteville voters approved a referendum spearheaded by Vote Yes Fayetteville that would have restructured the council seats from all at-large to six at-large and three single districts. The U.S. Department of Justice struck down the measure, saying it could dilute minority representation.

“And so, you know, it is ironic that this came up,” Colvin said. “We have the first majority minority council, but you know, I can’t speak to that for sure.”

The Justice Department’s decision no longer applies in Fayetteville and elsewhere. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 declared that city councils in nine states and parts of six others with a history of discrimination no longer had to get approval from the DOJ before redistricting.

Chavonne: It’s not about race

Hurst, a former councilman, and Chavonne, a former mayor, said Vote Yes Fayetteville has nothing to do with race. 

“It doesn’t matter to me what color people are,” Chavonne said. “We want a structure in place that people are accountable to more people and better decisions are made because there are people in the room that are charged with the big picture. The color of people doesn’t have anything to do with it.’’

They noted that Colvin, Pitts and many other past and present Black elected officials in Fayetteville, Cumberland County, Spring Lake and elsewhere have won election to at-large seats. Chavonne pointed out that registered Black voters in Fayetteville now far outnumber white voters.

“In a community that has 47.58% Black registered voters versus 34.49% white voters … how can someone say that Black voting rights would be diluted?” Chavonne wrote in an email. “In fact, qualified Black candidates would have a competitive advantage for each one of the seats.”

Hurst and Chavonne also noted that the councils for nine of the state’s 12 largest cities have at-large districts.

The major reason for having at-large districts, the two men said, is that it’s hard to get representatives of single districts to vote on large and expensive projects, such as blight in Shaw Heights or stormwater issues, when those projects don’t directly affect their constituents.

“This ward policy, you know what, you’re really kind of watching out for your district and you’re really accountable to those roughly 20,000 people, 25,000 people, that are in your district,” Chavonne said. “When you’re asked to spend money, especially on expensive projects, and they don’t really impact your district in a positive way, that’s a hard vote to take. And that’s the ones that we’ve had difficulty gaining traction in the city.”

The N.C. Court of Appeals typically takes months to reach a decision, and the General Election is only two months away. But Colvin said he is optimistic that the court will approve an emergency session and expedite a decision on the council’s appeal before the November election.

Hurst said he doesn’t understand why Colvin wants to go through the trouble.

Greg Barnes is an investigative reporter for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at gregbarnes401@gmail.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.

The original story can be viewed on CityView Today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.