10/17/11 — City pushes letter campaign

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City pushes letter campaign

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on October 17, 2011 1:46 PM

Goldsboro city government's online campaign against the implementation of a state annexation law now includes sample letters for concerned citizens to use when writing to the Department of Justice about the proposed deannexation of the Phase 11 area.

Meanwhile, the city's application for preclearance, which was received by the DOJ in mid-August, will be delayed by a month to allow the simultaneous review of all of the areas involved in the state law.

A letter from Chris Herren, the head of the division which is considering the preclearance for petitions to be mailed out to residents according to State Law 2011-177, formerly known as House Bill 56, was sent to the respective municipal attorneys of Kinston, Fayetteville, Goldsboro, Rocky Mount and the Village of Marvin. The letter states that the most recent submission, from Kinston's city attorney, must be reviewed along with the others, meaning the DOJ's 60-day review period will end Nov. 14, at which time "we will either make a determination on these changes or request any specific items of additional information necessary to complete our review."

The law states that annexations by municipalities in North Carolina are subject to a petition by property owners which, if 60 percent of votes aren't in favor of the acquisition, could block an annexation from occurring. Residents in the neighborhoods near Buck Swamp and Salem Church roads will also be allowed to retroactively petition their annexation as part of the consolidation of several bills in the General Assembly into the law.

It went into effect June 18, giving the Board of Elections 35 days to mail out a petition to property owners. The difference between the other municipalities and Goldsboro, however, is that the others have already sent out their petitions, as the statute stipulates, while Goldsboro acted on the suggestion of the state attorney general's office to hold the petitions until preclearance was granted.

A primary sponsor of the bill, Rep. Stephen LaRoque (R-Lenoir) said Wayne County Board of Elections staff members were in violation of the law by holding the petitions. LaRoque said he would look into introducing legislation to force the hand of the board in distributing the petitions during this session.

In Goldsboro's continued fight against the law, however, the city debuted a special page on its website Sept. 16 to provide information on the annexation and proposed deannexation of the area in the northwest portion of the city and solicit support from citizens both in the area and across the city concerned about the implications of deannexing an area of Goldsboro that first joined the city limits three years ago.

The page now contains sample letters from fictional citizens named Joe P. Ballcap and John Q. Public addressed to Herren.

Beginning Sept. 16, the city's website began advertising an opportunity for citizens to become involved in a legal battle led by attorney Anthony Fox. The city plans to challenge the law if the petitions are mailed out. The sample letters appeared Sept. 30, asking citizens to contact the DOJ expressing issues with the plan based on exclusion of some citizens from the petition while arguing that the shrinking of the city limits affects all of its citizens.

"The letters were put together from a list of talking points that we had," Assistant City Manager Tasha Logan said. "Some were from the League (of Municipalities) while some were put together from staff writing letters about what we have observed. These letters were written specifically for the Department of Justice and when we began doing this it was strictly for the preclearance."

Letter No. 1 is structured to be a communication from a citizen who does not own property in Phase 11, but feels the city's investment into the area will be a waste of money due to "partisan politics based on campaign promises" leaving citizens without the right to participate in the petition process financially responsible for that investment.

Letter No. 2 is from a Phase 11 resident asking why residents of the area should be exempt from paying their fair share of taxes.

Both letters admit that they realize taxes aren't popular and evoke the "partisan politics" rhetoric, although the second letter asks Herren to not allow "this harassment of the City to continue."

The third letter expresses "huge concerns about the legislature's ability to change a law retroactively," asking if this means that the state could change the speed limit on a highway, make it effective three years prior and then issue tickets based on those who exceeded the new speed limit.

It also questions what would keep other annexed areas from requesting opportunities to retroactively make their annexations null and void.

The law states that it is for current and future annexations, and the Goldsboro Phase 11 annexation is specifically provided for as the sole exception to that law, spurred mostly by House Bill 56, the product of Rep. Efton Sager (R-Wayne) who said he filed the bill when it became apparent the city had not met its requirement to provide sewer services to the area within two years of the annexation becoming valid.

City officials have said the four years of legal challenges following the annexation proposal in 2004 caused the contracts drawn up for the sewer installations to lapse and hindered its ability to put the area on its sewer line.

A Sept. 30, 2008, letter from Mayor Al King to annexed citizens reiterated that the city would follow through on its promise to provide sewer within two years. When Sept. 30, 2010, passed without sewer hookups, Sager pushed for the area's deannexation in earnest, drafting the bill that landed the area, and the city, in today's situation.

Ms. Logan said the sample letters were made available to hopefully empower citizens who were concerned about the decisions being made about the city without their inclusion in the decision-making process.

Residents elsewhere in the city and even those who rent property in Phase 11 will not be permitted to take part in the petition process.

"There's a certain level of discrimination if this goes through," Ms. Logan said. "That's the fact that we're presenting."

Ms. Logan and two members of the city's administrative staff are credited with drafting the letters, as Ms. Logan and Sally Johnson, the administrative assistant for the Planning Department, each provided one of the letters while Deputy City Clerk Monica Weddle said she wrote the third letter.