Petitioners deliver signatures for civil rights referendum

Dee McCoy (right), senior secretary with the Fayetteville City Clerk’s Office, works with Deputy City Clerk Lisa Branson (center), and City Clerk Sondra Smith to count signatures Saturday afternoon inside City Hall.

Photo: Todd Gill, Flyer staff

An effort to repeal Fayetteville’s contentious new civil rights ordinance has cleared the first hurdle.

Petitioners turned in stacks of signatures Saturday in hopes of triggering a public vote to overturn the anti-disrcrimination law passed by the Fayetteville City Council last month.

Petitioners had until today (Sept. 20) to turn in at least 4,095 names – or 15 percent of the residents who cast ballots in the last mayoral election – for a public referendum to be held, and to keep the new law from going into effect. At first count, the unofficial number of signatures delivered was 5,722.

The City Clerk’s office stayed open an extra day this week in anticipation of receiving the petitions. The office now has 10 days to certify the names, a process that will begin Monday morning, said City Clerk Sondra Smith.

Travis Story, a lawyer with the Story Law Firm in Fayetteville, said volunteers have been checking the signatures for weeks to make sure the names are from registered Fayetteville voters.

“We think about 80 percent of the names were valid,” said Story. “If we’re correct, we’ll have about 500 more signatures than we need to send (the ordinance) to a vote.”

If the final certified number comes up short, petitioners will have another 10 days to try and fill the gap.

Travis Story, a lawyer with the Story Law Firm in Fayetteville, talks with City Clerk Sondra Smith after the unofficial count on Saturday.

Todd Gill

With at least enough signatures turned in to get the repeal process to the certification step, the new ordinance will not go into effect, said Lindsley Smith, the city’s communication director. The ordinance will only become law if petitioners fail to deliver enough certified signatures or if the vote is unsuccessful, Smith said.

Wendy Campbell, a spokeswoman for Repeal 119, said the group began researching the repeal process on Aug. 20, immediately after the City Council passed the law. She said petitioners spent 20 days gathering signatures, and are confident they have enough certified names to call a public referendum.

“This is a controversial law and the citizens of Fayetteville want the opportunity to vote on it,” said Duncan Campbell, another spokesman for the group. Campbell said petitioners are requesting a special election on either Dec. 9 or Jan. 13.

The ordinance prohibits business owners and landlords from unjustly firing or evicting someone because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic background, marital status or veteran status. It creates a civil rights administrator position to receive complaints from residents who feel they are victims of those specific types of discrimination.

During the City Council meeting on Aug. 19, Alderman Justin Tennant proposed sending the measure to the public for a vote in the upcoming general election. He said it would allow all residents to help make the decision, and would likely be quicker – and cheaper – than if the public were to initiate its own vote to overturn the ordinance.

State Representative Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, spoke in favor of a public vote. “It gives the people the chance to say, ‘We are for this approach or we are not for this approach,’” he said. “There will be a clear resounding answer from the people of Fayetteville.”

Laurent Sacharoff, a professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law, said a public vote would be a mistake. “It sounds wonderful,” he said. “But the one time in which democracy fails us is when the rights of a minority are an issue. Sacharoff said minorities face terrible odds when faced with discrimination, and the burden should be on the public to vote for discrimination.

Alderman Kinion said while it would be easy for him to “pass the buck” and send the ordinance to a public vote, he would not support Tennant’s amendment. “That’s not the kind of person I am and that’s not why I was elected to this position,” said Kinion. “What I’ve learned is that fear will win out over truth (in a public vote).”

Tennant’s proposal failed 2-6 with only he and Alderman Martin Schoppmeyer voting in favor of a public ballot.

Voters in 1998 successfully repealed a similar measure that would have prohibited the city from discriminating against homosexuals when hiring or firing city employees.

The council voted 6-2 to approve the policy, known as the Human Dignity Resolution. Following the vote, then-Mayor Fred Hanna vetoed the proposal. Two weeks later, the council overturned Hanna’s veto.

A group called Citizens Aware mobilized to collect enough signatures to put the proposal on the Nov. 3, 1998 ballot where it was rejected, 58 percent to 42 percent.