EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was updated Friday, April 12, 2019, to correct the language of the ballot question.
CAPE CARTERET — After more than a year of sometimes acrimonious debate, there’s officially a date for a resident-requested referendum on whether the town should have a manager or an administrator at its helm.
Commissioners Monday night agreed by consensus not to change the date of the ballot referendum, currently set for the Tuesday, Nov. 5 municipal election.
The board last month discussed switching the referendum on the town’s form of government from the municipal election to a special election ballot, which will determine North Carolina’s next 3rd Congressional District representative, either in July or September.
The board took no action at that time, however, and it was back on the agenda for the monthly meeting Monday in town hall off Dolphin Street.
Commissioner Charlie Evans quickly made the motion to keep the referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot.
“As exciting as that (U.S. House) race might be,” he said, the town municipal election should generate a larger turnout and ensure more voters have their say on the town’s form of government.
“I think we should keep it on Nov. 5,” Mr. Evans said. He got a second from Commissioner Don Miller.
But Commissioner Mike King said he didn’t think a motion was needed to not change the date and Town Attorney Brett DeSelms agreed. Mr. Evans withdrew his motion and the date will not change. No commissioner voiced opposition.
Town Clerk Ashleigh Huffman in early March filed with the County Board of Elections the paperwork necessary to hold the referendum Nov. 5.
The ballot language, according the elections office, reads: “Shall the ordinance amending the Charter of the Town of Cape Carteret to change the form of government from Council-Manager to Mayor-Council be approved?”
But when the board voted in October 2018 to hold the referendum, members told residents who support the change back to a town administrator that they’d schedule it for the first election after the vote. At the time, that was Nov. 5.
Since then, however, the state has scheduled a special election – with primaries Tuesday, April 30 and a general election set for Tuesday, July 9 – to select a replacement for U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones, who died in February.
If the primaries result in a runoff – a winning candidate must get at least 30 percent of the vote – the runoff would be July 9 and the final election for the seat would be Tuesday, Sept. 10.
There are 17 Republicans and six Democrats filed for the primary, as well as two Libertarians and one member of the Constitutional Party, however, so officials think it likely there will be at least one runoff.
Monday night, Mr. DeSelms told the board the April primary date is “too soon” to hold the referendum and the September election date – despite the favorable odds that there will be runoffs – might not happen because it’s possible it won’t be needed.
That, he said, left July 9 and Nov. 5 as the best options.
During public comment at Monday’s meeting, referendum supporter Patricia Ruddiman requested the board stick with the Nov. 5 date.
“I think the townspeople and the board have been around this block,” she said, so the board should stick with the date already approved by the county, based on the paperwork Ms. Huffman submitted in March.
Previously, Ms. Ruddiman said she favored the November date because of the likelihood of higher turnout.
Resident Terri Ashby, also speaking during public comment, said the town could have had the referendum vote in November 2018, but since it didn’t, it’s just time to move on.
Ms. Ashby and Ms. Ruddiman were the leaders of a residents’ petition drive that led to the referendum.
Upset by the town board’s split votes in January 2018 to switch from a town administrator to a town manager and to elevate then-Administrator Zach Steffey to manager, and also by the dismissal of then police chief Tony Rivera, they canvassed neighborhoods and got enough signatures to force a referendum under state statute.
The board vote to make the changes 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.
Although the petitioners vehemently disagreed, 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 schedule the referendum on its own initiative. Petition organizers were bitter about the optics of that choice, but are now concentrating on winning the referendum, Ms. Ruddiman said this week.
The town commission race in November is expected to be hotly contested. Seats held by Mayor Dave Fowler, Mr. Evans, Mr. Miller and Commissioner Minnie Truax are up for grabs.
Ms. Truax, who has said she will not run for re-election, voted in 2018 for the switch to a manager, the elevation of Mr. Steffey 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.
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 changes in the charter and Mr. Steffey’s promotion.
Seats held by Mr. 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.