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.
Cumberland County Schools administrators on Thursday heralded the news that 15 schools in the district were removed from the state’s list of low-performing schools based on end-of-grade and end-of-course test results.
The report on school performance for the 2021-22 school year was released Thursday by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. The report said that the district’s student achievement results are beginning to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels.
The results are based on an analysis of end-of-grade (EOG) and end-of-course (EOC) tests, which are used to assess proficiency in English language arts and reading and mathematics and the science.
At a news conference to discuss the test results, Superintendent Marvin Connelly Jr. was joined by Kim Nash, executive director of data and accountability; Jane Fields, associate superintendent for school support; Stacey Wilson-Norman, chief academic officer; and John McMillian, principal of Lewis Chapel Middle School.
Lewis Chapel was among the middle schools with the greatest composite gains. The state’s accountability report includes performance and growth data for schools and districts across North Carolina. Nash defined growth as the actual performance of a student versus the predictions of how well a student will perform based on a number of factors, including tests.
In his opening remarks, Connelly said the district has overcome incredible challenges, from the disruption caused by the pandemic to teacher shortages. And, because of COVID-19, the accountability report is the first since the 2018-19 school year to include all the state’s accountability framework.
“Test results are only one of many ways that we measure the progress we are making in our district,” Connelly said.
But, he added, the accountability results demonstrate the “incredible work” happening in Cumberland County Schools. Nash highlighted the major results of the report. In reading, English, math and science, various grades in the district had an increase in proficiency over last year but did not surpass proficiency levels reported in 2018-19.
For example, in 2018-19 — before the pandemic — the district’s performance composite was 54.7% in grades three through 12. In 2019-20, the scores dropped to 36.8%. In 2021-22, those scores rose to 47.3%.
In grade-level proficiency for grades three through five, the composite reading proficiency (combined grades) rose from 36.6% to 43.1%. In 2018-19, the composite reading proficiency was at 55.3%. For math, the composite proficiency scores were 45.1% in 2021-22 compared with 28.9% the previous year.
The math composite score was 54% in 2018-19.
Fifth-grade science proficiency scores were 73.3% in 2018-19, 45.9% in 2020-21, and 62.2% in 2021-22. The trend continued for middle schools. Grade-level reading proficiency scores in grades six through eight were 47.1%, up from 42.6% in 2020-21. The 2018-19 score was 53.9%.
The composite math score for middle schools was 46.8% in 2018-19, 28.9% in 2020-21, and 36.8% for 2021-22. The grade-level proficiency rating in high school grades nine through 12 includes biology, English 2, and Math 1 and 3. For years 2018-19, 2020-21, and 2021-22, the composite scores were 58.5%, 36.7% and 50.8%, respectively. For English ll, the scores were 56.9%, 53.9%, and 55.7%, respectively. For Math 1, the scores were 41.6%, 19.2%, and 35%. And for Math 3, the respective scores were 43.2%, 29.6%, and 50.9%.
High school ACT scores for 2021-22 were lower than in both previous years. Nash said the University of North Carolina system raised the standard from 17 to 19, resulting in a lower percentage of students reaching the new benchmarks. Also, graduation rates decreased during the past three years. The district’s 2021-22 four-year graduation rate dropped to 82.8%, compared with 84.2% in 2020-21.
Schools that showed the greatest composite score gains include: Elementary schools: Warrenwood, Ponderosa and Mary McArthur.
Middle schools: Reid Ross Classical, Lewis Chapel and Luther “Nick” Jeralds. High schools: Cape Fear, Pine Forest and Douglas Byrd.
“While we have much more work to do, we need to pause and celebrate the accomplishments of teachers and students,” Connelly said.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education reported that reading and math performance saw the steepest decline in decades. The report cited the pandemic, classroom disruptions and violence, and a shortage of teachers as the causes.
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, Aug. 30 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.”