A leading supporter of a plan to add at-large seats on the Fayetteville City Council said Tuesday that his organization is not giving up.
A motion to put the Vote Yes Fayetteville initiative before city voters in a November referendum was rejected on a 6-4 vote Monday night at a City Council meeting.
Monday was the deadline for the council to act to put the referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Action on the plan had been delayed twice at previous meetings, with Mayor Mitch Colvin and some council members questioning whether Vote Yes, the organization pushing the initiative, had followed all the rules to circulate a petition calling for a referendum.
On Tuesday, Bobby Hurst, one of the organizers of Vote Yes, said the group will “explore every legal option available to protect citizens’ right to vote."
Hurst said members of Vote Yes will meet to determine potential timelines; review what was discussed between council members and the city attorney in closed session; and determine why it was necessary for the council to go into closed session when the city attorney often provides professional opinions during televised council meetings.
“There is nothing attorney-client privileged about interpreting N.C. General Statutes," said Hurst, a former member of the City Council.
Contacted by email, Hurst said he had some brief conversations earlier Tuesday with a few members of the Vote Yes committee. They plan to meet this week to determine their next steps, but he said he expects the organization will challenge the decision by the City Council.
“This is to be determined after we meet and discuss potential next steps,” Hurst said.
CityView Media publisher Tony Chavonne, a former mayor, is among the organizers of Vote Yes.
Voting against the Vote Yes referendum on Monday were Mayor Colvin and council members Shakeyla Ingram, Mario Benavente, D.J. Haire, Derrick Thompson and Courtney Banks-McLaughlin.
Those in favor of the referendum were Deno Hondros, Brenda McNair, Kathy Jensen and Johnny Dawkins.
During her presentation on the issue to the council, City Attorney Karen McDonald questioned the validity of the petition, which would restructure the way City Council members are elected.
Instead of all nine members being elected by district, four members would be elected at large and five would be elected from districts. The mayor would continue to be elected citywide.
Supporters of the initiative say it would provide better representation for all voters and result in the election of more “big-picture” council members.
“We believe having six council members accountable to each citizen will provide more representation resulting in more accountability and transparency in our city government,” Hurst said Tuesday.
But some opponents, including the mayor, say the change would dilute minority voting strength and make it more expensive for candidates who would have to run citywide campaigns rather than district campaigns.
McDonald said her guidance to the City Council was based on state Statute 163-218, which says a notice of circulation for a petition calling for any election or referendum shall be registered with the board of elections for the county in which the petition is to be filed. The date of registration of the notice is the date to begin circulation of the petition.
McDonald said she had a conversation with Cumberland County Attorney Rick Moorefield in which he told her there was no notice of circulation on file for the Vote Yes petition.
“And because we have not received that,” she told council members, “because the council has not received that, it appears to me to be a legitimate question as to the validity of the petition.”
McDonald said that opinion was supported by a written response from Angie Amaro, interim director of the Cumberland County Board of Elections Office on Aug. 16.
“And to this point,” McDonald said Monday evening, “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.”
Amaro has declined to discuss the issue with reporters.
Hurst said he does not understand the council’s position.
“We still don't have an idea what the mayor and his attorney, Jonathan Charleston, mean by ‘notice of circulation,'” he said. “There has been no response from the state or local Board of Elections on how that would apply to this referendum. The city legal staff has never identified what a notice of circulation is, let alone what one looks like.”
“Everything was done right by the rules," Hurst said.
During the council meeting Monday, Dawkins said he expects a challenge to the council’s decision.
“It appears that the petition was valid, and there also appears to be a problem with the petition itself,” Dawkins said. “Chances are, there will probably be litigation either way. I wanted to let the people decide and let the people vote. But I understand the concern the council has.”
According to Hurst, Fayetteville lawyer Neil Yarborough told members of the Vote Yes committee that the notice of circulation procedure does not apply to the Vote Yes petition. Hurst said the group could not get a clarification on the issue from the lawyer for the N.C. State Board of Elections or from County Attorney Moorefield.
Since McDonald's answers were based on N.C. State Statutes, Hurst said, "the only recourse would be a legal recourse and full finding of facts as to the … legal reach of the statutes."
Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.