Commissioners scrap resolution on Amendment One
By Ray Gronberg
DURHAM – Following a complaint from a Durham County Republican Party activist, County Commissioners abandoned plans to adopt a symbolic resolution against the state’s proposed “defense of marriage” constitutional amendment.
The decision came late Friday, after County Attorney Lowell Siler sided with GOP activist Richard Ford.
Ford on Friday emailed county officials to say he thought a formal vote by commissioners would violate state law that bars them from using “public funds to endorse or oppose a referendum, election or a particular candidate.”
“Everyone must stand together to demand the neutrality of the government in elections,” said Ford, who’s also a newly appointment member of the city’s Human Relations Commission.
Siler responded by talking to all five County Commissioners, “and they all agreed to take it off” Monday’s agenda, County Manager Mike Ruffin said.
“My position is they’ve got another viable alternative” when it comes to the issue, Siler said on Monday. “They can still state what their individual positions are.”
He added that he thinks the law “is very clear,” particularly since early voting began last Thursday.
But the decision angered anti-amendment activists, who noted that at least 13 county boards across the state, all or nearly all led by Republicans, had previously endorsed Amendment One.
The amendment is controversial because it ostensibly bars same-sex marriage. Critics say it will also bar civil unions and affect unmarried couples of all sorts. Polls indicate that in general, Republicans are supporting it and Democrats are opposing it.
Pro-amendment county commissions include Wake County’s, whose Republican chairman, Paul Coble, in February brushed off a complaint like Ford’s.
It’d come from fellow Wake County Commissioner Erv Portman, a Democrat.
“When I went to high school and learned civics, I learned that a referendum is the government asking the citizens what they think,” said Portman, who voted against the Wake resolution and signaled opposition to the amendment. “Where does the county board get off? Is that not heavy handed, is it not arrogant? We’re using county staff, paid for county tax dollars, broadcasting to homes throughout the county, to support a position. Where’s the fair access?”
Coble, however, said Wake commissioners were entitled to express an opinion.
Their resolution “does not say that people should vote for this amendment,” Coble told his colleagues in February. “It says what the amendment is, cites the law and then it says the county commissioners endorse the marriage amendment to the North Carolina constitution. It does not say that anybody should necessarily go vote for or against it.”
Durham County’s draft resolution similarly did not urge people to vote one way or another. It was styled as a statement of opposition directed to the N.C. General Assembly and local legislators.
Critics of the Durham commissioners’ decision to back off questioned the motives of the board’s five Democrats.
One, minister Carl Kenney, said they had shown “a lack of courage” throughout, having moved to weigh in only after two of the county’s big-three political groups, the People’s Alliance and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, announced opposition to the amendment.
“It’s hard to find [courage] while waffling between divergent political camps,” Kenney said in a blog posting. “It took courage when [Mayor] Bill Bell and members of the City Council took a position on the amendment long before the local political action committees voiced an opinion. They moved based on conviction, not what is politically expedient. That’s courage. That’s leadership.”
Kenney was alluding to City Council resolutions Bell and his colleagues passed last July and again last month.
A candidate running against four incumbent Durham commissioners in this spring’s Democratic Party primary, John Owens, also blasted the decision.
Owens, an opponent of the amendment, in an email to Durham Commissioners Joe Bowser, Brenda Howerton and Michael Page wondered whether Siler had tailored his advice to meet the wishes of a board that’s always been reluctant to weigh in.
“Until now, you have chosen not to vote on this issue. Was that choice politically motivated?” he asked. “Were you afraid that your positions would expose you to be woefully out of step with the rest of Durham? Would your vote hurt your electoral prospects? Did this fear translate into pressure on Mr. Siler that he offer you a way out?”
Even a supporter of the amendment thought commissioners were ducking the issue.
“I don’t think these folks are going to talk about it tonight because they’re afraid they’re going to lose some votes, either way,” political activist Victoria Peterson said.
Page said commissioners were free to state an opinion after Monday’s televised meeting.
Press accounts indicate that formal endorsements of the amendment have come from the Ashe, Avery, Brunswick, Caldwell, Davie, Lincoln, McDowell, Stanly, Surry, Union, Wake, Watauga and Wilkes County Commissioners.
Of the state’s 100 counties, only the Orange County Commissioners have formally voiced opposition to Amendment One.
At the city and town level, opposition has come from the Asheville, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Greensboro, Greenville and Raleigh councils.
New Bern’s council has endorsed the amendment.