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Greensboro elections to proceed under existing council structure

by Jeff Sykes

jeff@yesweekly.com | @jeffreysykes

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan and five city council incumbents filed to run for reelection on day one of the candidate-filing period.

Following a judge’s preliminary injunction against a Republican-sponsored bill that would have brought wholesale changes to Greensboro election districts, the filing period kicked off at noon Monday.

This year’s election will be held under the existing structure in place while a federal lawsuit works its way through the courts to determine if the redistricting measure forced through the General Assembly by archconservative state Sen. Trudy Wade and her allies is constitutional.

Vaughan filed for reelection as conservatives continue to scramble to try and find a challenger willing to take on the popular mayor.

At-large council members Marikay Abuzuaiter and Yvonne Johnson, the mayor pro-temp, also filed for reelection Monday. Greensboro newcomer Brian Hoss filed for an at-large seat Tuesday.

The filing period ends Aug. 7. In District 1, incumbent Sharon Hightower filed to hold on to her seat as the woman she beat by 12 votes in last election lines up for another shot. Long-time council member T. Dianne Bellamy-Small had an nounced her intention to run prior to the judge’s decision last week. Bellamy-Small officially filed her candidacy Monday.

Another first-term incumbent, District 2’s Jamal Fox, filed for reelection.

“We have a lot of work to do moving forward,” Fox wrote on his Facebook page. “We have done a lot but more to do and we need you a part of TeamFox!!” Thessa Pickett has filed to challenge Fox in District 2.

District 4 council member Nancy Hoffman, who kicked off her campaign a while back and is building her usually formidable network of supporters, filed for reelection as well.

District 5’s Tony Wilkins has stated his intent to run for reelection in his district despite the more conservative political activists in the city and county Republican circles urging him to run for mayor. Wilkins said that he planned to file for reelection on Wednesday morning.

Voters will also decide this fall on a referendum to increase the city council term length from two to four years.

This year’s council election was the subject of much debate since late last year when word began to spread of a move to redraw council’s election districts. Wade later introduced the bill once the current session of the General Assembly got underway.

An overwhelming number of Greensboro residents expressed strong opposition to the move throughout the debate. Despite the outcry, Wade and her Republican allies forced the bill through both a conference committee and a rushed vote on the floor of the state house on July 2.

Greensboro’s elected leaders, minus Wade’s ally Wilkins, immediately signaled plans to challenge what became known as the Greensboro Act in federal court. Following a public hearing earlier this month, lawyers on behalf of the city filed a 14th amendment challenge to the new law in U.S. District Court.

In the court filing submitted to the US District Court, attorneys from Brooks, Pierce and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice claimed the redistricting move “destroys self-government by the City of Greensboro and its citizens.”

“If permitted to take effect, the Greensboro Act would destroy municipal government crafted and controlled by the citizens of Greensboro and replace it with a city council founded upon unconstitutional voting districts and expressly limited in its powers of self-government,” the suit states.

City residents Lewis A. Brandon III, Joyce Johnson, Reverend Nelson Johnson, Richard Alan Koritz, Sandra Self Koritz, and Charli Mae Sykes joined the City of Greensboro in the lawsuit filed against the Guilford County Board of Elections. The county board is empowered by state law to administer elections for the City of Greensboro.

The citizen plaintiffs, represented by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, claim that overpopulation of voters in certain new districts under the plan will devalue their individual vote when the plan takes effect with the opening of the candidate-filing period on July 27. They also claim that their “communities of interest” have been divided among multiple districts under the plan. Additionally, both the citizen plaintiffs and the city claim the new law violates the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Specific language in the law as it relates to Greensboro forbids the council or city residents from petitioning for a change in the structure of city council in the future.

In issuing her preliminary injunction last Thursday, US District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles decided against allowing the new law to go into effect this year.

“It appears on the current record that the new statute deprives Greensboro voters, alone among municipal voters in the State, of the right to change the City’s municipal government by referendum and otherwise treats the City of Greensboro and its voters differently from all other municipalities and municipal voters, without a rational basis,” Eagles concluded.

At issue is a 1969 law that delegates to all cities, and their citizens, “significant control over their own forms of government.” The law spells out the ways in which cities and citizens can change the size and scope of elected councils. The law describes methods and options for citizen challenges to changes made by elected bodies without a vote of the people.

Wade’s bill stripped Greensboro, and its citizens, of those rights, setting the stage for a constitutional challenge.

“By its express terms, all of these changes applied ‘only to the City of Greensboro’ and to no other municipality,” Eagles concluded. “While the General Assembly has from time to time redistricted and reapportioned other cities and boards, nothing before the Court indicates that the General Assembly has ever before prohibited a municipality’s voters from participating in the rights given in N.C. (general statutes).” !

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