11/16/11 — Justice allows petition to move forward

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Justice allows petition to move forward

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on November 16, 2011 1:46 PM

The federal Department of Justice has signed off on the North Carolina General Assembly's allowance for the deannexation of Goldsboro's Phase 11 area, subject to a petition process, according to a letter from Christian Herren, the chief of the department's Civil Rights Division.

The letter, dated Nov. 14, states that the U.S. Attorney General "does not interpose any objection to the specified changes" to the annexation procedures and requirements on the books in North Carolina.

The letter goes on to note that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 does not prohibit "subsequent litigation to enjoin the enforcement of the changes" even if the U.S. Attorney General does not object to the changes. That means the city would still be free to challenge the legislation in court.

The city recently hired a lawyer to discuss possible ways to challenge the law in case the deannexation of the city's most recent involuntary annexation were to occur.

The decision puts into motion a process by which property owners in the area eligible for deannexation will be issued petitions asking for their opinion on the annexation. If more than 60 percent of property owners vote in favor of deannexation, the area would no longer be a part of Goldsboro.

The city challenged the legality of the process, publicly asking for letters to be written to the DOJ highlighting the fact that a large portion of the city's residents -- those who do not own property in Phase 11 -- were not permitted to vote on the issue. The city argued that the shrinking of the tax base, despite a substantial financial investment into the area through the installation of city utilities, would leave remaining citizens responsible for paying for the services extended to the area.

In a release, the city stated that it "plans to continue to evaluate the proposed legislation and its consistency with local, state and federal laws."

City Manager Scott Stevens said the news was not a shock, but that it means the city can now decide on its next move.

"The news is not surprising," he said today. "We'll move on and discuss with council as to whether we'll keep going in the direction we've been heading with the annexation."

Property owners in the Buck Swamp and Salem Church Road areas can expect to receive their petitions in the mail soon. Wayne County Board of Elections Director Vickie Reed said this morning that the petitions were being folded and placed into envelopes before she'll personally take them down to the post office later today.

Petitioners will have 130 days to return the petitions, meaning the deadline is March 25, Mrs. Reed said. After a 10-day review period, the Board of Elections will then notify the city of the outcome of the petition, meaning the Phase 11 area could no longer be a part of Goldsboro beginning April 4, 2012.

Rep. Efton Sager, R-Wayne, the primary sponsor of the local bill that sought to remove Phase 11 from Goldsboro's city limits -- which was eventually incorporated into the overall annexation reform bill -- said he was pleased with the Department of Justice's decision.

"What I can say is that it's been a long time coming. I'm delighted that the justice department precleared it, but I understand it's not over," Sager said. "The city of Goldsboro will probably still try to keep it from happening, but this is a bigger part of the battle. If the city had listened at the public hearings, they wouldn't have proceeded with the annexation. There were many mistakes they made."