Democrats sue to force Dunlap's appointment

The Mecklenburg County Democratic Party sued county commissioners Wednesday, asking a judge to order the board to appoint George Dunlap to fill the remaining weeks of the late Valerie Woodard's term.

A group of local party officials chose Dunlap earlier this week to succeed Woodard as commissioner for District 3, which includes parts of central, east and north Charlotte. But commissioners did not confirm Dunlap on Tuesday after the board's Republican members, who are in a four-to-four split with Democrats, voted against the appointment.

At least three Republicans – Karen Bentley, Bill James and Dan Ramirez – said they would reconsider their vote if they get questions answered about how the party selected Dunlap. But Ramirez repeated that he would resign as commissioner if a judge forced his vote.

The party wants commissioners to confirm Dunlap now. Its lawsuit states commissioners are “engaged in serious and important work. The lack of representation from District 3 impairs the ability of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners to perform its functions in a manner fully representative of the people of Mecklenburg County.”

The suit was filed in Mecklenburg County Superior Court on behalf of the party and Geneal Gregory, a party activist who lives in the district. It asks the court to declare Dunlap as the new District 3 representative, as well as order commissioners to confirm him.

Noell Tin, one of the local Democratic Party's lawyers, said he hopes a hearing will be held by early next week.

Dunlap is named in the suit but isn't listed as a plaintiff. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

In the meantime, commissioners are hiring separate attorneys to represent each party. Republicans are still finalizing their choice, while Democrats have retained prominent civil rights attorney James Ferguson. The county will pay for the attorneys, but the cost isn't clear.

The local Democratic Party picked Dunlap to serve as the District 3 commissioner until 2010, including a two-year term Woodard was seeking prior to her death earlier this month.

Dunlap, who currently sits on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, will be sworn in as commissioner in December once the Democratic Party submits his name as Woodard's replacement for the two-year term. The party hadn't submitted his name as of midday Wednesday, said elections director Michael Dickerson.

But commissioners have to vote on whether to allow Dunlap to fill the rest of Woodard's current term, which ends Nov. 30.

N.C. law states commissioners “shall appoint” the nominee of the local party for the unexpired term if the recommendation was made within 30 days of the vacancy. But the law does not say when commissioners must act, and some commissioners question whether the county is even required to make the appointment.

This is the second time in less than a year that commissioners have either refused or delayed appointing a person picked by local Democrats to fill a vacant position.

In December, commissioners did not confirm Nick Mackey as sheriff after questions were raised about the legitimacy of the election. A state party panel later overturned the sheriff's election because of irregularities, and commissioners went on to name Mackey's opponent, Chipp Bailey, as sheriff.

The difference this time, Democrats say, is that no one within the party has questioned the election.

In rejecting the appointment on Tuesday, James questioned whether the party should have allowed more of its members to vote on who would succeed Woodard. He also said he wanted more information about past confrontations Dunlap has had with colleagues as a school board member and former police officer. Dan Bishop, also a Republican, said Tuesday he opposed Dunlap because he is a “divisive, racist member of the board of education.” He couldn't be reached Wednesday.

James' request drew criticism from another Democratic Party attorney and the chairman of the state party.

“Bill James is not in the position of conducting a job interview,” said attorney Mike Daisley. “… The statute doesn't say the county commission shall appoint the person so recommended preface so long as Bill James says it's OK. That is not in the statute.”

Democrat Parks Helms said the party wants to have Dunlap on the board before the Nov. 4 election. Without someone in the seat, commissioners have been deadlocked along party lines on topics such as an upcoming reassessment of county property.

On Wednesday, some Republicans said they hope the matter could be settled without resorting to legal action.

“As long as questions about process are answered and we're confident in how everything was conducted,” Bentley said, “then I have no problem appointing Mr. Dunlap.”

Staff writer Gary Wright contributed
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