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Keep Fairmont Safe group submits 577 additional signatures

By CARTER WALKER

Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT, W.Va.  — An additional 577 signatures for the Keep Fairmont Safe petition were submitted on Wednesday, and the city clerk will now have five days to determine their validity.

The submission of the additional signatures comes 10 days after the initial petition was found to be insufficient.

The intent of the petition is to have the Fairmont City Council reconsider the recently passed human rights commission ordinance.

On Sept. 12, city council passed the human rights commission in a 7-2 vote after a 3 1/2-hour meeting in which more than 80 people spoke on the subject.

Full coverage of that meeting can be found on timeswv.com.

Supporters of the commission said it was created with the intention of repealing the old human rights commission and reinstating the commission to serve in an educational capacity which had less quasi-judicial powers.

Much of the controversy stemmed from the inclusion of two new classes, “gender identity” and “sexual orientation,” in the wording of the ordinance.

In a press release Tuesday evening, Keep Fairmont Safe said that “because neither ‘sexual orientation’ nor ‘gender identity’ is in State Code, and (they) are not defined in State Code, it leaves the door open to a very broad spectrum of definition possibilities.”

A full text of the petition can be found on the city’s website.

On Oct. 12, the Keep Fairmont Safe group submitted a petition with 2,505 signatures, but on Oct. 30 they were notified by the city clerk that only 1,675 were found to be valid. That amount was 304 shy of the 1,979 required to send the ordinance back to a city council vote, and by city charter the group had to submit a supplemental petition within 10 days.

According to the city’s charter, a signature is only considered valid if the signee resides in the corporate limits of the city and was registered to vote in the city during the last election, which would have been November 2016.

If at least 304 of the new signatures are found to be valid, then the petition would be successful and the ordinance would go back to city council for review. Should city council reaffirms their vote in approval of the ordinance, the issue will be put to a public vote on the 2018 ballot.

Robin Gomez, Fairmont city manager, said that if the new human rights commission ordinance is successfully defeated in an election or voted down by city council, the old human rights commission would still be in effect because part of the new ordinance contained a repeal of the old one.

In the Tuesday press release, the Keep Fairmont Safe group said “this new ordinance removes the old penalties which are clearly defined, and replaces them with an invitation to litigate for redress or damages.”

The old human rights commission ordinance gave the commission the authority to hold hearings and levy fines.

A post on the Keep Fairmont Safe Facebook page shared an article from the Dominion-Post about the Morgantown Human Rights Commission with the caption “Fairmont do you want this?”

The article explained how the Morgantown City Council was considering a change to its human rights commission ordinance that would give the commission the ability to hold hearings and levy monetary penalties.

When Kandice Nuzum, who represents Keep Fairmont Safe, was asked on Wednesday if she was aware that the old ordinance had these powers and would still be in effect if the new ordinance were voted down or repealed, she said, “What we were told was that ordinance was never in effect.”

“I’ll have to look at that again,” Nuzum said.

“(The old ordinance) is in effect now,” Gomez said.

If Wednesday’s submission is also deemed insufficient, then the petition will have failed, though the group could appeal the decision in court, which it indicated in its Tuesday night press release it would.

“If the city clerk’s office doesn’t certify the petition as sufficient, the next step in the determination as to the sufficiency of the petition shall be subject to court review,” the release said.

On Monday, the city published the initial petition in full on its website. Some residents questioned the legality and timing of this decision, as it contained the names and addresses of all the signatories.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Doe v. Reed that referendum petitions were public record.

City Clerk Janet Keller, who has worked for the city for 39 years, said this is the first referendum petition ever done in the city.

Gomez said the petition was published because it is a public document and so that it could be viewed by the public.

“We figured it would be worthwhile for people to be able to see everything that was on the petition, including Janet’s certificate showing the results,” Gomez said.

Gomez said he had no conversations with Mayor Tom Mainella about publishing the original petition to deter people from signing the second petition.

Of the 10 days that the group had to acquire additional signatures, the original petition was publicly available online for 47 hours at the end of that time period.

An email chain between Gomez, Mainella and City Attorney Kevin Sansalone that Gomez reviewed with the Times West Virginian showed that the three discussed the possibility of publishing the petition in the context of people’s signatures being forged.

“I had an email from the mayor Oct. 31,” Gomez said before going on to read the email.

“Was there any discussion about making the petition public so if someone’s name was put on the petition unbeknownst to them the name could be removed,” Gomez read from an email from Mainella to himself. “(Mainella wrote) it’s possible that someone could add another person’s name knowing they are a registered voter. The person whose name was added fraudulently would never know their name was added on the petition.”

After forwarding Mainella’s inquiry to Sansalone, Sansalone advised that the documents were public record, but names could not be removed by law, Gomez said.

“Thank you for the response. We will scan the original petition, Janet’s certificate and place it on our internet site,” Gomez said to Sansalone in his response.

“So it’s inferred from this that can you make it public so people can see if their name was on there but they never signed it,” Gomez said. “That’s really the first email I have, the impetus for (putting it online).”

He said that others had made comments that they had signed the petition but their name had not been counted by the city, or that Gomez had personally struck names from the record.

Both Keller and Gomez said that Gomez was not a part of the verification process.

Because of the questions of forgery and impropriety, the city published the petition to “alleviate those concerns,” Gomez said.

“Here is everything that was submitted, 584 pages” Gomez said. “If Keep Fairmont Safe or any other group or individual has a question, there it is.”

Mainella also said the petition was not published with the intent of dissuading additional signatures.

“We were not publishing that as a deterrent,” Mainella said in a later interview that was separate from Gomez. “We published that because that’s public record and people needed to know who signed that petition. … I was in favor of publishing that petition to see if there were people who didn’t sign whose name appeared on it.”

Email Carter Walker at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @carterw284.

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