Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons ruled Thursday, Sept. 1, that a referendum on the Vote Yes election plan be placed on the November ballot to allow voters to decide if they want to change the way the City Council is structured.
“I’m ordering that this measure be put on the ballot,” Ammons said. “This is important.”
He then told Cumberland County Attorney Rick Moorefield to “get the order done today.”
Attorney Edwin Speas, who represented the city of Fayetteville and the county Board of Elections in the civil case, said the city will work with the Board of Elections to have the proper wording completed in time to print the ballots.
The Fayetteville City Council has called an emergency meeting for 9 a.m. Friday to discuss the litigation, according to a notice sent by the city Clerk’s Office.
On Aug. 22, the City Council voted against putting the proposal on the ballot after some council members raised questions about whether Vote Yes Fayetteville followed the rules on circulating a petition.
Members of the advocacy group filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the city and the county Board of Elections asking that the referendum be put before voters on the Nov. 8 ballot.
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 passed by voters, 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.
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.
CityView TODAY publisher Tony Chavonne, a former mayor, is among the supporters of the initiative.
Those who oppose the initiative — including Mayor Mitch Colvin and five other members of the current council — say it would dilute representation by increasing the size of the districts. Opponents also say it creates hardships for minority candidates who would have to run their campaigns citywide rather than by district at a higher cost to them.
“I’m real happy for the people to have a chance to vote,” Bobby Hurst, a leader of Vote Yes Fayetteville, said after the hearing Thursday.
Fayetteville attorney Lonnie Player Jr., who represented Vote Yes in the case, said he was pleased with the outcome.
“(Judge Ammons) read the statutes clearly and correctly and arrived at the proper result,” Player said.
Player said there is little case law on the issue.
Player represented the three plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit: Hurst, Karl Merritt and Suzanne Pennink, who were asking for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.
Speas, on his way out of the courtroom, declined to comment on the decision.
Moorefield and Karen McDonald, the attorney for the city, said they had no comment.
Earlier, Ammons questioned why some city officials opposed putting the issue to the voters.
“I’m wondering why the city is fighting this, to tell you the truth,” he said in court. “I wonder why they are incessant to delay the people to decide this issue that apparently — due to the plaintiffs — has been properly done.”
Moorefield responded: “I think the City Council is interested in complying with the law. If the City Council — if it receives a valid petition — will clearly put it on the ballot.”
Robert Hunter, who represented the plaintiffs challenging the City Council’s decision, told Ammons that federal and state constitutions both guarantee a right to petition.
“Both constitutions have a provision as part of due process, ... and the state constitution has a right to vote and a right to petition for the address of grievances,” Hunter said. “In addition to that right to petition and right to grievances, the N.C. legislature codifies specific statutes — which your honor has said he has read — which allow citizens and municipal corporations to place a ballot measure on the ballot to change the structure of the election.
"In this particular case, over 5,000 citizens of Cumberland County were led by the group Vote Yes Fayetteville, who began to gather signatures in March of 2021,” Hunter continued. “They went to the Board of Elections here to receive guidance and, in doing so, they were informed they had to form a political committee, and they were not given any other forms (that were) necessary to begin a petition drive."
The City Council received verification of the petition signatures from the county Board of Elections, Hunter said, but it delayed action “for reasons that haven't been explained, from our viewpoint."
Hunter told Ammons that with the petition signatures verified, city officials had no discretion to refuse to call a referendum.
Speas argued that state law must be applied as written.
“We would like for this petition to be dismissed,” Speas said, adding that the petitioners could begin the process again since it had been more than a year since the first petition was initially circulated.
But Ammons said the petition process was completed within a year's time in compliance with state law.
In delaying action to call a referendum, some city officials had argued that Vote Yes Fayetteville failed to file a “notice of circulation.” But Moorefield said in court Thursday that the Board of Elections has no such notice required to circulate petitions.
Ammons said the City Council’s decision "appears to me to be self-serving."
“The City Council has failed to call for a special election, which is required by the statute," Ammons said. “That the plaintiffs had the clear right to this action that would comply with the statutes. ... There's no legitimate right for the City Council to object to putting this measure before the people. …
"This measure needs to be included on the ballot," he added.