CAPE CARTERET — Town officials last week revised and turned into the Carteret County Board of Elections the final language for a Tuesday, Nov. 5 referendum on whether to retain the town manager form of government or revert to the mayor-council version with a town administrator.
According to an email to the News-Times at 4:45 p.m. Friday from Margot Burke, interim director of the BOE, the language the town turned in to the elections board Friday is, “Shall the ordinance adopted by the Town of Cape Carteret on October 8, 2018, which would change the Town’s form of government from the current Council-Manager form of government (Town Manager), to a Mayor-Council form of government, be approved? Yes or No.”
The deadline Ms. Burke set to get the amended language on the November general election ballot was Friday.
Previously, the language read, “Shall the ordinance amending the Charter of the Town of Cape Carteret to change the form of government from Council-Manager to Mayor-Council, as enacted on October 8, 2018, be approved? YES or NO.”
Town commissioners discussed the issue during their monthly meeting Monday night in town hall, but came to no conclusion. The issue arose because Town Clerk Ashleigh Huffman had been discussing the language with the BOE after town commissioners raised concerns about the clarity.
Ms. Huffman has been handling the referendum for the town, as Town Manager Zach Steffey, who would see his position change back to town administrator if voters approve the referendum, has stayed out of the discussion. He declined to comment this week.
The News-Times was unable to attend the Monday night town commission meeting, but Ms. Huffman said Thursday the board first considered forming a committee to draft the new, clearer language. Instead, it delegated the responsibility for drafting the new language to Town Attorney Brett DeSelms.
Ms. Huffman’s draft minutes of the meeting – not yet approved by the commissioners – indicate the board settled on working with the attorney through individual emails. They approved the language in that manner before Ms. Huffman sent it to the BOE Friday.
“We thought it was settled by the board (of commissioners) in April,” Ms. Huffman said Thursday. “But there was concern (among commissioners) that it wasn’t clear enough and that’s why it came up on the agenda Monday night.”
Ms. Huffman said she consulted with the county elections office to get a final date, which turned out to be Friday, for when the language had to be submitted.
Mayor Dave Fowler said Friday he didn’t understand why the town had to submit the language Friday, since the filing deadline for town commission races in the Nov. 5 election isn’t until this Friday, July 19.
“They’re not going to print the ballots now,” he said. “Why did they set this arbitrary deadline?”
But Ms. Burke said early Friday afternoon she wanted to get all the ballot information as soon as possible and stood by the deadline of 5 p.m.
“We have to prepare the ballot,” she said. “The company that prints the ballots is already asking us, ‘Are you ready?’ I want us to get ahead of the game, not behind it.”
The town’s goal in the revision, Mayor Fowler said, was to make the language on the ballot as simple as possible so voters will know the effect of how they vote when they cast their ballot.
“The original language, which we put together going by the state statute, I don’t think most people can understand it,” he said. “It needs to be clear. People need to understand it.”
All of this began in January 2018, when the board voted 3-2 to switch from a town administrator to a town manager form of government and voted 4-1 to elevate then-Administrator Mr. Steffey to manager.
Some residents, upset by that decision and by a split vote to dismiss then-Police Chief Tony Rivera, mounted a petition drive to force a referendum on the manager/administrator question.
The board vote in 2018 used a provision in state General Statutes to enact the charter change. Another option under the statutes was to call for a referendum, but the board chose not to do that.
The residents, led by Terri Ashby and Patricia Ruddiman, obtained enough signatures on the petition to force a referendum in November 2018, but a commission majority twice rejected the petition as invalid on technical grounds, based, it said, on timing and initially incomplete documents.
After months of wrangling, the board finally voted unanimously in October to adopt an ordinance to schedule the referendum on its own initiative in 2019. Petition organizers were bitter about the optics of that choice, but generally agreed a November 2019 date would ensure a higher turnout, since town commission seats are also on the ballot.
Seats held by Mayor Fowler and commissioners Charlie Evans, Don Miller and Minnie Truax are up for grabs.
Ms. Truax has said she will not seek reelection. As of Friday, Mr. Evans had filed for the mayor’s seat and Ms. Ruddiman had filed for town commission, as had Jeff Waters, former police chief in Emerald Isle.
Petition supporters have vowed to mount a vigorous campaign to overturn the manager system and to unseat Mayor Fowler. He said Friday he believes a majority of town residents support the manager form of government.
Ms. Truax voted in 2018 for the switch to a manager, the elevation of Mr. Steffey to that position and the dismissal of the police chief.
Mr. Miller voted against the charter change and police chief dismissal, but voted for Mr. Steffey’s promotion from administrator to manager.
Mr. Evans voted against the charter change, the promotion of Mr. Steffey and the dismissal of the police chief.
Mayor Fowler votes only to break ties, but publicly supported the change to the charter and Mr. Steffey’s promotion.
Commission seats held by Mike King and Steve Martin, both of whom voted for all of the changes, are not up for election this year.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email Brad@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.