Remember the Presidential Election of 2000 where Florida was the home of dimpled and hanging chads? Sherwood may be entering into a similar territory.
A citizens group known as Citizens of Sherwood Together (COST) is continuing to gather signatures trying to place before city voters a referendum to reverse a November ordinance passed by the city council that chose North Little Rock Electric over competitors Entergy and First Electric Cooperative. In the approved ordinance, North Little Rock Electric was granted a 20-year contract to provide utility service to about 7,000 city residents in a municipal territory it has serviced for more than 50 years.
On Thursday, Dec. 27, COST presented 156 petition sheets totaling about 1,500 signatures which its members believed were more than enough to get the North Little Rock Electric ordinance on a city ballot.
However, last week, Sherwood City Clerk Angela Nicholson informed COST that about 300 of its signatures are invalid. Nicholson said 1,413 valid signatures would be needed in order for it to be placed on the ballot.
Nicholson said she and an assistant city clerk spent about 15 hours one day on the first week of January going through the signatures to validate or invalidate each one. Nicholson said she started counting at 7:30 a.m. on one of the days following New Year’s Day and didn’t get done until 10:30 p.m.
Nicholson said her office compared the names on the petitions with the list of registered Sherwood city voters that can be found on the Pulaski County Election’s Office website where the names of all valid registered county voters can be found.
Nicholson said she has informed COST members about the invalid signatures.
Nicholson said the names some petition signors could not be found on the county voter registration list. In other cases, there were other problems.
“Some of them didn’t have a date of birth fully written out,” Nicholson said. “Some others were not Sherwood residents. They were not registered to be Sherwood voters.”
She said about some of the invalid signatures, “A lot of people had Sherwood address but not registered to vote in Sherwood. We could not find them on the voter registration.”
Don Berry, COST’s chair, said Nicholson’s office has given the community group until 5 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 14, to collect the necessary number of signatures. Berry said COST is disputing the Jan. 14 deadline because he said the clock shouldn’t start ticking until the group is given specific reasons why some signatures were invalidated.
By state law, once a group is notified about invalid signatures in a petition drive, it has 10 days to get enough valid signatures for an issue to be placed on a special election ballot.
Berry said COST members have not been provided by the clerk’s office reasons why each signature had been rejected.
Berry said he is frustrated how some people were rejected.
Berry sites as an example the rejected signature of Gene Butler, the husband of Sherwood Alderwoman Toni Butler.
“One signature is Gene butler while his real name is Walter Eugene Butler,” Berry said. “He signed it W.E. Butler and they voided it.”
Berry questioned the method used by the clerk’s office because he said the criteria is supposed to be if the signature is recognizable as a registered city voter then it should be approved.
Berry said other people who signed the petition are passing their 80th birthdays and did not record their names exactly as it is written in the county election office.
“This is beyond the scope allowed,” Berry said.
Berry said volunteers keep mounting more names and are trying to surpass the 2,000-mark.
“It is an easy sell,” Berry said, asked if more people are interested in signing the petitions. “One company is going to charge people between 15-20 percent less than North Little Rock Electric. We want to give people a chance to have their voices heard.”
If COST’s mission is accomplished, city residents will vote upon the ordinance. Residents then will have the opportunity to vote down the council-approved ordinance, which will return the entire project of picking an electric company to square one.
Berry said he feels the entire process used by the city was not fair. He believes city officials who supported North Little Rock Electric were much more interested in Sherwood getting the additional annual tariff of $475,000 offered by the sister city more than giving impacted residents the best deal they could get.
The 1,413 figure was arrived at by the city clerk’s office because it is based on the percentage of people who voted in the last city mayoral election that was in 2010. About 9,000 city residents voted in that election and COST volunteers need to get 15 percent of that number to sign petitions for the North Little Rock ordinance to be recalled.
North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith said he is well aware of the Sherwood petition drive and hopes city voters there remain with North Little Rock Electric.
“They have that right,” Smith said. “I feel they would be making a huge mistake to leave us. They are like our sister. If they go with Entergy they will be a third cousin at best. They need to remember that.”