After delaying action at two previous meetings on a plan to restructure city elections, the Fayetteville City Council voted 6-4 Monday night against calling a referendum on the Vote Yes Fayetteville initiative.
Voting against the restructuring of the way City Council are elected were Mayor Mitch Colvin and council members Shakeyla Ingram, Mario Benavente, D.J. Haire, Derrick Thompson and Courtney Banks-McLaughlin.
Those in favor of a referendum on the plan were Deno Hondros, Brenda McNair, Kathy Jensen and Johnny Dawkins.
The Vote Yes initiative would restructure the election process for City Council members. Instead of electing all nine members by district, four members would be elected at large and five would be elected from districts. The mayor would continue to be elected citywide.
"I was real disappointed in tonight's vote," said Bobby Hurst, one of the organizers of the Vote Yes Fayetteville initiative.
During Monday’s meeting, City Attorney Karen McDonald said questions persist about the validity of a petition calling for the referendum that was submitted by the Vote Yes Fayetteville advocacy group. McDonald said the council had directed her to contact the Cumberland County Board of Elections to inquire about whether petition organizers had followed the rules.
“I did that on Aug. 9,” McDonald said. “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.”
Angie Amaro is interim director of the county Board of Elections.
Newly elected Councilman Mario Benavente then made a motion that the City Council not proceed to put the referendum on the November ballot.
Thompson, another newcomer to the council, seconded the motion.
Mayor pro tem Dawkins then questioned McDonald, saying it appears that the letter confirming the petition is valid. He asked if she had any comment on the letter from the elections board.
“The letter said, in response to my letter — what she said specifically — my question was pursuant to (state) Statute 163-218,” McDonald said. “That statute requires a notice of circulation and the date of registration. The Board of Elections and Miss Amaro confirmed that no such registration or notice of circulation was submitted.
“Given the statute, as previously stated, the statute says that is required, so therefore there remains a question as to the validity of the petition.”
Dawkins asked McDonald if there was any case law on a state statute that deals with city charter amendments.
“I don’t think there is any case law on that,” she said. “When we talked about case law, the discussion was about the case law as it relates to 163-218 and whether it applies to these types of petitions.”
Dawkins replied: “So, we don’t know if the statute applies to the petition. Is that your guidance?”
McDonald said, “No, my guidance is that when you look at 163-218, it says a notice of circulation of a petition calling for any election or referendum shall be registered with the county Board of Elections in which the petition is to be filed. And the date of registration of the notice shall be the date of issuance and commission of circulation of the petition.
“And because we have not received that,” she added, “because the council has not received that, it appears to me to be a legitimate question as to the validity of the petition.”
Dawkins asked about her correspondence with Cumberland County Attorney Rick Moorefield.
McDonald said she had not received any correspondence from Moorefield but had a conversation with him in which he told her that there was no notice of circulation.
Dawkins said his concern is that “it appears that the petition was valid, and there also appears to be a problem with the petition itself.”
“Chances are, 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.”
Hondros said all the council members had campaigned in the July 26 election on transparency and accountability. He said he campaigned on being the voice of the people.
“The referendum is the voice of the people,” Hondros said. “Now they should decide.”
The council then voted on the motion to reject putting the referendum on the November ballot, with the ensuing 6-4 vote.
Hurst said Fayetteville lawyer Neil Yarborough had told his committee that the notice of circulation procedure does not apply to the Vote Yes petition. He said the group could not get a clarification on the issue from the lawyer for the N.C. State Board of Elections or from Moorefield.
“Everything was done right by the rules," Hurst said.
The issue was removed from the council's agenda at a June 27 work session and its Aug. 8 meeting after questions were raised about whether the advocacy group promoting the change had filed all the necessary paperwork to put the referendum on the ballot.
CityView TODAY publisher Tony Chavonne is among the organizers of the Vote Yes initiative.