09/26/11 — City is seeking plaintiffs for case

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City is seeking plaintiffs for case

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on September 26, 2011 1:46 PM

Goldsboro is taking a grassroots approach to soliciting support for its possible legal challenge of a North Carolina law allowing for the deannexation of the Phase 11 portion of the city, an area that contains more than 1,100 residents.

House Bill 56, which sought the outright deannexation of the area, was enveloped into a local bill that would change the rules by which municipalities could annex areas. A 60 percent return of a petition is now required to annex areas and the law specifically lays out a plan by which the residents of Goldsboro's Phase 11 can remove themselves from the city limits.

The federal Department of Justice is currently reviewing the deannexation plans before the petitions can be sent out to residents, something state legislators who drafted the law said violates the spirit of the law.

Meanwhile, the city has retained the legal advice of Anthony Fox, a Charlotte lawyer. Fox concentrates on advising cities and towns, according to his online biography, and successfully defended the largest involuntary annexation in North Carolina history.

Beginning Sept. 16, the city's website began advertising an opportunity for citizens to become involved in the legal battle. It says that those residents interested in participating in the effort can become involved as a plaintiff, with the city bearing all legal costs associated, if the individual commits to being an active and available participant.

Forms are asked to be returned to the city manager's office, and the number for the office is listed as a source for answers to questions concerning participation.

City Manager Scott Stevens said the form doesn't obligate individuals to participate and simply means the city can pass along contact information to Fox, who will contact the individual and discuss the legal challenge. The practice, Stevens said, seems to be unique in the state.

"I don't think there's a precedent for this," he said, adding that retroactive deannexation is a new occurrence as well.

"This has not occurred in North Carolina before," he said.

City Attorney Jim Womble said that the move was simply a way to give citizens an opportunity to be involved with a possible lawsuit that would have a direct effect on them.

"We're just giving city residents the opportunity to take part in the lawsuit if there is a lawsuit," he said, adding that it was still up to the council as to whether a lawsuit would actually be filed.

The documents available on the page surrounding the link for the form indicate that the remainder of city residents will be on the hook for the debt incurred by the city's decision to extend services to the area being considered for deannexation. The statistics show that as of June, the debt includes $2.2 million spent in extending sewer lines to the area and about $700,000 through bonds to continue providing other sewer-related services.

The lack of sewer service to the area is reportedly what led Rep. Efton Sager to draft the original bill. A municipality is mandated by state law to provide sewer service to an annexed area within two years of the annexation becoming valid.

The annexation was originally proposed to take effect in 2004, al though residents of the annexed area challenged the legality of the annexation. After four years of legal battles, the lawsuit ended when the state Supreme Court refused to hear the case, upholding a decision by the appellate court that deemed the annexation legal. It went into effect Sept. 30, 2008. By Sept. 30, 2010, the area still did not have sewer services, something the city said was due to the legal battle causing contracts to expire. The city has yet to finalize sewer services for the area.

The documents also cite more than $200,000 that has been spent providing garbage service to the area since 2008 and note that last year's total tax levy for those in the Phase 11 area amounted to $416,000 last year, revenue the city would lose if the residents there were deannexed.

"The city incurs cost and if you're a rate payer of a facility or a taxpayer, if a sizable portion (of the city) goes away and doesn't pay for that cost, then you pay all of it. It does have an impact on everybody, though. As to what is significant or not significant, well that's personal, but the cost incurred is paid by those of us still in the city," Stevens said.

Also included in the collection of documents are two letters to Chris Herren with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice -- one from members of the City Council and another by U.S. Rep. G. K. Butterfield.

The council's letter expresses five of the councilmen's "serious concerns" with the deannexation referendum because of the "discriminatory effect the deannexation referendum and its suffrage requirements will have on racial minorities" in Goldsboro.

District 1 Council Member Michael Headen's signature is absent from the letter. Headen, whose District 1 territory includes the residents of Phase 11, has acted against the annexation since he took office, siding with his constituents who wish to see Phase 11 removed from the city limits.

District 4 Council Member Rev. Charles Williams' signature also did not appear on the letter, although he said he would have signed the letter had he been included in the discussion. Williams has been recovering from surgery since late August.

The letter asks for the United States Attorney General to object to the referendum to prevent discrimination based on the lack of minority voters that would take part in it and the law's stipulation that only property owners can vote, citing a state prohibition against limiting voting to property owners.

Rep. Butterfield contends in his letter that, because the residents of annexed area are 84 percent white, the majority of minority voters in the city "will be adversely impacted because they are not allowed to participate in the referendum." The Voting Rights Act stipulates very specific demands for minority representation. He also points out that only those landowners in Phase 11 will be allowed to submit petitions, saying the exclusion of the rest of the city's participation in the petition "adversely effects (sic) racial minorities and denies equal protection to the Goldsboro residents."

Bob Pleasants, president of Good Neighbors United, which fought the annexation, said he and his neighbors aren't concerned about the city's actions as far as a potential lawsuit was concerned.

"They're not challenging us, they're challenging the North Carolina legislature," he said.