Dems' panel orders new vote; county board to study its options
ERIC FRAZIER, GREG LACOUR AND APRIL BETHEA, Charlotte.com, Feb. 3, 2008
A state Democratic review panel threw out Nick Mackey's nomination to be Mecklenburg County's new sheriff after hours of testimony Saturday about broken party rules in the hectic run-up to last month's special election.
The council found "clear and convincing evidence" that local Democrats failed to call or publicize required meetings as precincts, most of which voted heavily for Mackey, quickly organized before the Dec. 6 election.
The county executive committee must meet within 30 days to vote again, state Council of Review Chairman Jim Slaughter said. He urged Mecklenburg commissioners, who must name a replacement for former Sheriff Jim Pendergraph, to take no action before Democrats convene.
Mackey sat impassively as the 10-2 vote was announced at 11:15 p.m., after a 13-hour hearing.
After the decision was announced, Mackey and his attorneys left the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center trailed by a pack of television cameras and reporters. They made no comment.
A man carrying a placard in support of Mackey also followed. "You lynched a man today!" he yelled.
James Ferguson, Mackey's attorney, said it was too early to decide whether the decision would be challenged in court.
County commissioners Chairman Jennifer Roberts says she plans to talk with attorneys on Monday about next steps. "This is one step in the process... we need to consult with our counsel and there are still a couple different scenarios ... that we might be able to pursue."
In more than nine hours of testimony before a state review panel, party faithful described corners cut as Democratic precincts scrambled to organize in the two months before the election.
Mackey's winning votes should not be counted, challengers argued, because county party chairman David Erdman failed to force members to follow party rules.
Erdman conceded that he hadn't appointed acting chairs in each precinct or called for special organizing meetings. He said he relaxed the party's rules to bring more precinct workers into the fold to help Rep. Beverly Earle in her failed bid in November to unseat Mayor Pat McCrory.
Erdman said the rules had stifled his efforts and that his own precinct may not have been organized properly. But he didn't believe Mackey or his opponent, Chief Deputy Chipp Bailey, had an unfair advantage after he relaxed the rules. Bailey's precinct organizing before the election was rarely mentioned Saturday, even though some precincts he organized also came under scrutiny.
"We admit what we've done, but we don't admit that we've done wrong," Erdman said. "We did the best we could."
State Democratic chairman Jerry Meek testified that if Erdman failed to fulfill any of those requirements, the votes from precincts formed under those rules shouldn't be counted.
Party rules say the election can be overturned only if there is proof that tainted votes provided the margin of victory.
Debbie Bell, a technology specialist for the party who filed a grievance, said that if precincts organized in October and November were eliminated, Bailey would have received 301 precinct votes in December, to 128 votes for Mackey.
The hearing before the state Democratic Council of Review ended at 8:11 p.m., when the panel went into closed session to deliberate. Panel members, meeting before an overflow audience at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, heard two grievances challenging voting precincts that quickly formed before the election.
Witnesses recounted finding themselves named as precinct officers, without their knowledge, after visits from Mackey supporters.
Party members who brought the grievances defended their math, in calculating the impact of precincts they say were improperly formed, and their motives.
The county party's executive director admitted that her own precinct, which she serves as secretary-treasurer, had never held an organizational meeting -- one of the key complaints about the new precincts.
"It's embarrassing," Joan Thieda testified.
"I know," responded Ferguson.
It was nearly 7 p.m. before Ferguson could address the council. It would be a mistake, he told its members, to judge the conflict as a matter of rules. The case, he said, is really about county commissioners' refusal to "follow the law" and name Mackey sheriff.
The people who helped form precincts and voted for Mackey "... believed they were following a process -- the correct process," Ferguson said.
"Now they are being told that their votes count for nothing."
Commissioners Chairman Roberts later retorted: "I found it interesting that other people chose to make the county commissioners the scapegoat, even though we weren't there. It was inappropriate and it shows desperation."
Vacancy to be filled
A hot debate over arcane party rules, race and personal qualifications began with the Oct. 1 retirement announcement of former Sheriff Jim Pendergraph, who left with three years remaining on his term. By last week it had attracted a visit by civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and lured a crowd inside on a springlike Saturday.Bailey had been widely expected to take over the job of overseeing 1,400 employees and a $104 million annual budget. But Mackey, a Charlotte lawyer, beat Bailey in the special election to recommend a replacement as sheriff.
County commissioners refused to appoint Mackey, a former police officer who resigned from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg force after a 2003 probe into whether he lied about his work hours. Mackey denied wrongdoing.
But party activists say a lot went awry during the rush to nominate a successor.
The activists wanted the state party to declare the election invalid, and rule that the county party missed its 30-day deadline to nominate a new sheriff. Such a ruling would allow county commissioners to name anyone they wish, and they favor Bailey.
Grievances filed with the state party claimed that 64 newly formed precincts, which voted heavily for Mackey, broke party rules before voting. The total number of precincts more than doubled in October and November, and most didn't hold required precinct meetings. At least 11 people said they didn't know they were listed as precinct members. Fictitious addresses were listed for some residents of two senior centers who were listed as precinct members, the petitioners said.
Those improperly formed precincts gave Mackey his victory, say lawyers for the party members who brought the grievances.
"It's clear the rules were broken," said Jon Sasser, a Raleigh attorney representing the people who filed the grievance petitions. Violations "permeated" the Dec. 6 voting, he said.
"Who got hurt by these violations? My clients, who are the party stalwarts, represent the little guys. They were squeezed out, by a band who had secret meetings, or no meetings at all."
Ron Leeper, a former Charlotte City Council member, testified that he and his wife never attended a precinct organizing meeting -- despite a list supplied by party officials showing they did. Leeper said he never got word of such a meeting.
George Wallace, past chairman of a precinct in southeast Charlotte's Grier Heights neighborhood, said he was told he was no longer chair when he attended the Dec. 6 election. Wallace said he didn't know the people now listed as precinct officials.
Meek testified that he had called Erdman weeks before the election to say that precinct meetings had to be correctly convened.
In more than two hours before the council, Erdman said county Democrats made mistakes but defended the way precincts formed and met.
"I do not know if these (organizing) rules ever have been forcefully enforced," he said. "This county heretofore operated on the honor system."
Erdman said that system allowed anyone who wanted to organize a precinct to do so. But he added that "would not tolerate" improperly organized precincts.
Ferguson sparred with party members who brought the grievances.
"You don't know who organized those precincts, do you?" Ferguson asked Jane Whitley, a former secretary of the county party. Whitley said she relied on written evidence and what she heard from other party activists.
Later in the hearing, former party chairman John Cotham testified that on election night, Whitley "...looked at me and said, `Don't worry. I'll overturn this election. Nick Mackey will never be sheriff of Mecklenburg County.' "
Earlier, Whitley had denied making the statement.