The Pinehurst Village Council agreed Tuesday to hold a public hearing on whether a recall election provision should be added to its charter.
But it could be January given the council's current meeting schedule, which is complicated by the election next month.
Several residents who said they were caught by surprise that the council would allow public comments during the monthly work session -- something that is normally not permitted -- urged the council to consider adding the provision as a measure of protection for voters.
They also urged the council to hold a better publicized hearing at another meeting.
"There would be more people speaking out today if they knew," Lynn Muir said of the council allowing public comments Tuesday. "So I feel like there should not be a decision today until there is a widely publicized public comment period."
Mayor Nancy Fiorillo responded, "Fair enough."
In a brief interview after the meeting, she said any decision on whether to add a recall provision would be up to the new council, which is where it gets complicated.
The council meets only once in both November and December, though it could call a special meeting.
Fiorillo said it would not be ideal to hold the hearing at the next regular meeting on Oct. 24, the last one before the election. She added that one or possibly two new members who win will not be seated in time for the Nov. 14 meeting, the only one scheduled in November.
She said the new council members likely would be sworn in Dec. 12, in a mostly ceremonial meeting, unless the council decides to do that in November after the results are certified by the county elections board.
That means the hearing would be held at the regular meeting on Jan. 23.
"In all fairness to the new people coming on board, they should be allowed to be a part of making this decision," Fiorillo said.
The council did not vote to set a date following the discussion Tuesday.
Council members agreed during their Sept. 26 meeting to put the issue on the agenda for its October work session after several residents pressed them to explain why the village would summarily dismiss a petition signed by 120 residents supporting a recall provision that Deborah Wimberly submitted in July without any public discussion.
Wimberly requested in her letter that the council ask state Rep. Jamie Boles to introduce a local bill to add a recall election provision to its charter. Mayor Nancy Fiorillo responded in a July 19 letter that the council had no plans to do that. She said that was based on an opinion from Village Attorney Mike Newman.
That did not satisfy proponents of a recall provision, who want a full public discussion.
"I seem to have stirred up this hornet's nest, and that was never my intention," Wimberly told the council Tuesday afternoon. "My intention was only to provide some protection for the village, in the same way I don't want to wait until I smelled smoke in my house to get homeowner's insurance.
"I can't imagine why there would be any pushback. There are a number of people in the community who think this is a fine idea. I realize the majority of towns in North Carolina don't have it. I don't care what the majority is doing. I think it would be best for us."
Former council member John Strickland said this "is a very simple thing to adopt."
"It's part of the democratic process," he said. "I don't see any reason not to adopt it."
Strickland agreed that there should be "a high threshold" for a resident to petition for a recall election.
The few municipalities in North Carolina with recall provisions typically require that 25 percent of the registered voters sign a petition to call for one, according to Village Attorney Mike Newman.
Lynn Goldhammer, another recall supporter, said this does not have to be permanent.
"If it seems like a good idea, why not try it for a year or two and then re-evaluate it," she said.
Newman urged the council leave things as they are, saying proponents have not made a case for why the council should "upend the way the village of Pinehurst has conducted elections for over 40 years." He said they have based it on what might happen.
"The only thing that has been presented is the hypothetical situation .... where a majority of the council enacts some agenda that is contrary to the vast majority of their constituents," he said. "While she (Wimberly) says that has happened in the past, she does not tell us when, where or what circumstances. I'm not aware of any. ... Even if it did occur, I still haven't been told why the next general election would not cure that. We already have a form of democracy"
Wimberly said in an interview in July when she submitted the petition that while this is not a direct result of the council's decision to approve the Greens apartment complex last year, it is an example of what they are concerned about. Opponents argued that the council ignored the opinions of the majority of residents in approving the 72-unit complex.
Newman said only 17 of the more than 550 municipalities in the state have recall provisions, along with a handful of school boards. Two are in Moore County -- Aberdeen and Foxfire Village.
He said the state constitution does not make a provision for recall elections, though the N.C. General Assembly can enact a local bill to allow them.
"They have construed the absence of a recall election mechanism as, in their words, a gap or obvious omission in our town code," he said of supporters. "It is no more a gap or obvious omission from our state constitution that doesn't allow it. It is not a gap in any of the 550 municipalities that have never gone down that route. It is the minute exception, not the rule."
Newman said the village could have "a serious discussion" about the pros and cons of having a recall provision but that so far he has not heard any valid reasons for adding it.
"The fact of the matter is that recall elections typically result in chaos," he said, using the situation in Wisconsin in 2012 when Gov. Scott Walker faced a recall election, as an example. "It is not a perfect example. ... It is very chaotic. You've got a lot of cost involved."
Newman said many states that allow recall elections "are trying to dial them back" to allow then only for instances of misconduct. He said there has been no instances in the village to justify a recall election.
"I think this is a proposition that is completely unnecessary," he said. "It is premised on there is something wrong with out existing system. There is not. It has worked well for 40 years. There is no need to fix it."
Council member John Bouldry said he agreed with Newman's position from a legal standpoint. He said he would oppose adding a recall provision.
"I worry about how this would encumber future councils in decisions that we make," he said. "More importantly, I think having a recall provision in my personal view, it will always be a factor in making what I consider to be an independent decision based on what I think is in the best interest of the village of Pinehurst and not having to think about .... some small group that is applying pressure on the council."
Council member Clark Campbell, who expressed concerns about recall elections, said that in fairness to residents who want one the council needs to at least have the discussion about the pros and cons and be transparent.
"There is a lot more to this than to have a response to a letter," he said of Fiorillo's letter back to Wimberly this summer.
He agreed that it needs to be done in a regular meeting and not a work session "because you have to engage with the public."
Campbell agreed with Newman that recall elections come with costs to the village since it has to pay for them. He noted that it costs Southern Pines $15,000 to hold a primary Tuesday to eliminate one of the five candidates from the field for two seats on council.
"That is one of the things that factor into the equation," he said.
Campbell said it is also lengthy process for the Board of Elections to verify that everyone who signs a petition is a registered voter in that municipality and then schedule an election.
"By the time you got through it, your term might be over," Campbell said.
He agreed there has to be a high threshold of at least 25 percent of the registered voters signing a petition asking for a recall.
"You can't make it easy," Campbell said.
He noted that typically voter turnout is low, so it could be a challenge to get 25 percent of the registered voters to sign a petition.
Campbell said he understands the reasons for wanting to have a recall provision.
"It is just another protection for democracy," he said. "I think it is an interesting topic. I don't think you summarily say don't do it. You have the conversation. I am a believer in democracy the way it works."
Campbell said a prime example of that is what happened when the school board fired Superintendent Bob Grimesey two years ago. He said the threat by state Rep. Jamie Boles of seeking a recall provision was "a little bit of a hammer" over the members of the board who voted to fire Grimesey. He was later reinstated by a new board after four of the five members who voted to fire him resigned.
"The public spoke and those people resigned quickly after what they did," he said. The fifth member decided not seek re-election that fall. "That was a really, really strong reaction. They fixed it ... and they didn't chose to do a recall after that."
But Campbell said if there is a hornet's nest out there in the village about this issue the council should at least discuss it.
Fiorillo said she did not see a need for adding a recall provision, agreeing with Newman's position. She said the village has some of the highest satisfaction ratings in the country.
"I am not in favor of this kind of chaos that I'm sure would reign," she said.
Resident Ray Angelier urged the council, for the sake of transparency, to have an open discussion and listen to residents' concerns.
"The people feel like there is very little transparency," he said. "I think that is the reason this has caught on. They're trying to preserve what has been going on for the past 40 years. I wouldn't be doing pushback because that is what gives you a bad impression. Why are they (council) pushing back? People are starting to talk.
"I can guarantee if this disappears tonight, it is only going to get worse. I think you need to open this up to the public and hear their comments, good or bad. This is a hot topic now."
Also during the meeting, the council voted unanimously to swap 3.2 acres it owns on Juniper Lake Road with an acre on Rattlesnake Trail at Magnolia Road owned by the Sandhills Sandsharks swim club.
The swimming pool property is valued at about $60,000.
To equal the value of the land the village would give up, it will also pay the swim club $20,000 cash and pay the cost of surveying and legal expenses, estimated to cost $5,000.
The move will allow the village demolish the pool, which will cost an estimated $15,000, and improve that corner.
The council voted to take $40,000 from its reserve funds to cover the costs of the deal.
The land on Juniper Lake Road was originally purchased by a previous council years ago with plans to relocate the public services center there. That has since been abandoned.