03/27/12 — Court rejects deannexation

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Court rejects deannexation

By Matthew Whittle and Ty Johnson
Published in News on March 27, 2012 1:46 PM

A petition count scheduled this morning to determine the fate of Goldsboro's annexed Phase 11 area was delayed after the county Board of Elections was advised that proceeding could be considered unconstitutional, even as those seeking deannexation promised to continue to fight.

A ruling by Wake County Superior Court Judge Shannon Joseph late yesterday afternoon deemed the state law enacted last summer, which allowed the retroactive deannexation of the Buck Swamp and Salem Church roads areas, as unconstitutional.

In their lawsuit, the municipalities contended that legislation had based "the right to vote on property ownership" and that it denied "all other city and annexation area residents the fundamental right to vote."

County Attorney Borden Parker said after the meeting that while the ruling had been issued, an order had not yet been drawn up, but that judges almost always allow the prevailing party's attorney to write those.

As of press time, the order had not been received by the Wake County Clerk of Court to be processed, but Parker cited an email during the board's meeting from a deputy clerk indicating the ruling had been issued.

However, state Rep. Stephen LaRoque, one of the bill's primary sponsors, said Tuesday morning that this ruling would not be the end of the fight.

"This will be appealed," he said. "There is a disconnect or confusion with the judge over what is a vote and what is a protest petition. A protest petition is not a vote, and the judge ruled that it was."

He also said that he was in the courtroom Monday and said he was extremely disappointed in the result, and especially in state attorney Faison Hicks' handling of the case.

"He was probably the most unprepared attorney that I've ever seen in a courtroom," LaRoque said, noting that even he twice referred to the protest petitions as votes. "It makes me believe that either he is completely incompetent or that he intentionally sandbagged the hearing. I'm not sure which.

"The attorney general (Roy Cooper) is a large supporter of the League of Municipalities, and if that's the case, I think we've got some real issues with the attorney general and his office."

He also said that he believes there was a conflict of interest with Mrs. Joseph's role as the presiding judge. He explained that Mrs. Joseph is the wife of Ripley Rand, the son of former long-time state senator Tony Rand, who long fought against annexation reform. Additionally, LaRoque added, Ripley Rand was the Wake County Superior Court judge who ruled in favor of the city of Goldsboro when the petitioners from the Buck Swamp and Falling Brook communities were originally fighting their annexation.

"One of the things we're looking into is whether that was a conflict of interest," LaRoque said.

Still, with the future of the law -- and of the deannexations it involved -- now uncertain, the board of elections voted to delay the petition count until something changes either in the court's ruling or state law to allow it.

The state has 30 days during which an appeal can be filed.

LaRoque also promised that as soon as the General Assembly reconvened for its short session on May 16 that he would be introducing legislation to make sure the areas affected by this ruling are deannexed.

"I'll have the legislation drafted before we go in," he said. "These annexations will never take place."

State Rep. Efton Sager, R-Wayne, also said he was upset by the outcome and concerned about the state attorney's perceived lack of effort.

"I'm very disappointed," he said. "The people who were there said it didn't look as thought the state attorneys office was well prepared for this case."

He also said the judge's connection to Tony Rand bothered him.

"Sen. Rand, as long as he was in office, always allowed the League of Municipalities to do anything wanted to and he'd support it," Sager said. "But nobody represented these people when they were annexed. They had nobody to help them stave off something they did not want. We will certainly be taking some sort of action in the short session."

Affected by the ruling are annexation attempts in Goldsboro, Kinston, Lexington, Wilmington, Fayetteville.

The petitions, which the Board has been receiving since November, came as part of a state law allowing areas being annexed by municipalities to resist, should 60 percent of petitions be returned to the respective county board of elections indicating residents did not want to be annexed. Several local laws, including one concerning Goldsboro, were combined into the annexation reform law. Goldsboro's Phase 11 was annexed in 2008 after a four-year legal battle.

According to the Wayne County Board of Elections website, 75.46 percent of petitions had been returned as of Monday.