FAYETTEVILLE — Members of the Washington County Quorum Court were surprised Thursday night (May 10) when they arrived at their regular monthly meeting to learn they were being sued over their decision to send a sales tax to fund expansions to public transit to the May 22 ballot.
The sales tax vote asks Washington County voters for a quarter-cent sales tax increase that will raise an estimated $7.5 million each year for public transit programs.
According to a petition filed the afternoon of May 10, Citizens for Effective Transit and Coleman Taylor filed suit against all of the Quorum Court members, Washington County Clerk Karen Combs Pritchard and the Washington County Election Commission. The petition, filed by Fayetteville attorney Brian Lester of Lester Law Firm, alleges that the Quorum Court improperly sent the quarter-cent sales tax increase to the ballot. The suit asks for an injunction against the ballot measure. Early voting started on the measure May 7.
“My clients are not against public mass transit,” Lester told the Court members Thursday night. “This suit is to prevent wrongful taxation.”
The petition alleges several areas of potential impropriety:
• Failure to obtain necessary votes
A state statute requires a 3/5 majority and with seven JPs voting to place the measure on the ballot, that majority was not reached. Washington County Attorney George Butler said the statute does not apply in this instance.
• Failure to satisfy three required readings
The suit alleges that when the JPs added a “whereas” clause to the second reading that clarified that the placing of the tax on the ballot was not necessarily an endorsement of the tax, that it created enough of a change in the ordinance to force it back to first reading. Butler said Thursday he disagrees with that assessment.
• Failure to adopt an ordinance for benefit of Washington County
The suit alleges that by claiming that they were neither supporting, or not supporting the tax by placing it on the ballot, the JPs failed to prove that the measure is in the county’s best interest.
• Ambiguity and misinformation in transit tax ordinance and title
The suit alleges that both the language and intent of the sales tax question are confusing and even misleading because it implies that all of the money raised in Washington County will only be used in Washington County and it has since come to light that it might be possible for the money to be used elsewhere in some circumstances. The suit also alleges that the language regarding the sales tax benefiting Washington County then immediately saying that the JPs were not necessarily endorsing the measure is contradictory.
Butler said he had not been officially served with the petition but that he saw it in the Circuit Court Clerk’s office Thursday afternoon. He told the JPs he doesn’t believe they should have been named in the suit because “the Quorum Court has no control over the election. That’s the Election Commission.”
Lester said that there was no strategic nature in the fact that the suit was filed after early voting started for the sales tax (a full two months after the Quorum Court approved it for the ballot).
“This is just when it came together,” he said.
The last time the Washington County Quorum Court was named in a lawsuit was during the early 2000s during the Amendment 59 property tax rollback suit.