When the Goldsboro City Council meets May 7, Councilman Antonio Williams will continue to represent District 1 whether or not he is in fact legally able to serve as an elected official.
The Wayne County Board of Elections can investigate the eligibility of Williams' voter registration, if a challenge is formally filed by any registered voter in Wayne County.
If the board can verify Williams' residency, the councilman can vote and retain his seat. If so, Williams' address would become a matter of public record, just as it is for any other member of the council.
"Every voter's address is a public record in North Carolina," said Patrick Gannon, State Board of Elections public information officer.
Questions about Williams' residency have recently come under question, first by District 1 residents and later by the owner of 304 Wilmington Ave., who has confirmed that Williams does not live in the home, which is listed on his voter registration record.
Residents of District 1 asked the council to act, just as it has in other city matters. As a result, the council required Williams to produce two forms of proof that verify his address as being within the district. Williams has declined, citing concerns for his safety.
At a special called meeting of the council Monday, Williams again declined to provide his address. Mayor Chuck Allen said last week that if Williams does not provide proof of his residency, he would no longer qualify to serve on the council, according to state law.
N.C. General Statute 160A-59 requires a council member to live in the district he or she represents. If they do not, their seat becomes vacant, immediately.
In a turn of events Monday, Williams held onto his seat, as his attorney and the city attorney concluded he has the right to due process.
"There is a statute, N.C. General Statute 128-6, that does say persons admitted to office are deemed to hold it lawfully and there's got to be some sort of determination, a proper proceeding to take place to determine whether or not they can hold office any longer or not," said Ron Lawrence, city attorney.
Robert Joyce, School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill professor of public law and government, confirmed that Williams has the right to due process and recommends the council pursue a voter registration challenge with the Wayne County Board of Elections.
"It's pretty clear in North Carolina," Joyce said. "There has to be a proper finding but there has to be a finding to that and that's what a Board of Elections hearing is about."
In order to hold public office as a District 1 representative on the council, Williams has to be a registered voter in District 1. His voter registration also has to include his address.
Any Wayne County registered voter can challenge Williams' residency by submitting a challenge in writing, said Dane Beavers, director of the Wayne County Board of Elections. Currently, the Board of Elections is not allowing any written challenges because early voting is underway and voter registration documents are considered closed. The registration books reopen on May 19, at which time a challenge can be submitted, Beavers said.
If a challenge is presented, the challenger will become a plaintiff and will be required to present evidence at a preliminary hearing of the board. The board can then determine if a full hearing is warranted. The hearing can result in the board determining if a registered voter is eligible to vote. If they are not, they would be removed from the county registration rolls, Beavers said.
"Under the North Carolina Constitution, in order to be eligible to hold elected office, you must be eligible to vote for the office," Joyce said.
If Williams loses his voter registration status in District 1, he is ineligible to serve in the council District 1 seat. At that time, the council can declare that his seat is vacant and appoint a representative to serve out Williams' term, Joyce said.
The council decided to allow its attorney and attorneys representing Williams time to discuss the matter in an effort to seek resolution.
Williams' attorney, Jeff Loperfido, with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said he is interested in working with city officials to provide residency information, but in a way that addresses Williams' safety concerns.
"We'd like to find a way where we can reach a mutually agreeable solution wherein the information is provided to the satisfaction of the council and the mayor, while recognizing the legitimate safety concerns of my client and the individuals he's staying with," Loperfido said.
Lawrence said Williams' address is a matter of public record.
"I am of the opinion that information is not something that can be kept confidential," Lawrence told the council. "We've got the Board of Elections. To be a registered voter, you have to provide proof of address and any person in the city can go down and ask for the address of another voter, not just a elected official but another voter as well."
Allen told Williams he is well-known in the community and people can already easily contact him, including at his downtown business, The Ice Storm.
"Councilman Williams, I will to say this to you -- personally, you're putting us in a really bad spot," Allen said. "You either live in the district or you don't, and we don't want to be here. Nobody wants to be here doing this.
"If you're worried about your safety, you're at the Ice Storm every day. I mean, people know who you are. You're a very prominent figure in town. I don't understand that, and I think the citizens ought to know where you live."
Depending on the outcome of attorney negotiations this week, the council has two options, Lawrence said. The council can have someone file a voter registration challenge with the county Board of Elections or pursue amotion proceeding, a quasi-judicial process, to verify Williams' address.
The two methods would provide Williams with the right to due process.
Loperfido said it's possible that Williams may be open to providing the information city officials are seeking through negotiations this week.
"That's the hope," Loperfido said. "That's why we're here."
Two people called the Board of Elections office seeking information on how to file a voter registration challenge on Williams on Monday, Beavers said. No challenge has been filed to date.
Even though Williams has cited safety concerns as the reason for not providing his address, there is only one method under which a registered voter can keep their home address confidential. The state Attorney General's Office has an Address Confidentiality Program, which allows provisions for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or human trafficking who fear for their safety, Gannon said.
Police Chief Mike West confirmed recently that he is not aware of Williams "being in fear of his safety."
Allen said Williams' reasons, which are stated in a letter his attorneys sent to the council, are trying to push blame elsewhere.
"I think all the other things that he's bringing up are just smoke screens to try to take the attention off of him," Allen said. "I think it's a situation where he's blaming everybody but himself and he needs to take the responsibility to fix this."
Allen also said residents need to be able to contact their representatives, which is one reason why having an address and other contact information are important.
"I think the people should know how to have access to their elected officials," Allen said. "Nobody else has a problem with it.
"As a council member, we are held to a higher standard, not a lower standard."