Lawmakers' last-minute vote leaves school board member unable to seek re-election

SHELBY, NC (WBTV) - A member of the Cleveland County Board of Education cannot seek re-election this year after a bill was passed in the final hours of the North Carolina General Assembly's long session that concluded last Thursday.

In the final hours of Thursday's session, the state house and senate approved a bill that converted nine boards of education in counties across the state from non-partisan races to partisan contests.

The bill required school board members to either be registered with a political party or collect signatures from a certain percentage of registered voters to be eligible to run as an unaffiliated candidate.

The bill took effect for the 2018 election cycle for all of the listed counties; Cleveland county's school board content held this year will be a partisan race.

Because the final version of the bill passed in the last hours of the session - the House and Senate had passed different versions of the bill weeks earlier - Falls was left with roughly 24 hours notice that she needed to collect the number of signatures required to run for re-election as a school board member.

"I found out that the General Assembly passed this law on Thursday night and on Friday morning I was called by a colleague and asked what I was going to do," Falls recounted to WBTV.

She hung up from that call and contacted the county board of elections, who then directed her to the state board of elections.

"They said, 'you can't run.' And I said, 'what do you mean I can't run?'" Falls said.

The bill passed on June 29, 2017. The deadline for Falls to submit a petition with 2,600 signatures was June 30, 2017.

"I was shocked," she said. " I could not believe that they did that and knowing that we would file starting the next week."

But House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican who represents Cleveland County, said the bill was not intended to deny Falls - or any other unaffiliated person in Cleveland County - the ability to run for school board.

"It was just an oversight and folks weren't thinking through that," Moore said.

The Speaker said he believes the situation could be resolved by the board of elections taking a different interpretation of the new law.

"What I'm hoping for, frankly, is that the Board of Elections is going to look at their interpretation because the interpretation they gave us is nonsensical," Moore said.

The situation Falls finds herself in now is a symptom of what happens at the end of every legislative session, when lawmakers try to pass as many last-minute bills as they can and conclude their business for the year.

"It's like the log jam broke and all these bills comes through," Moore explained of what typically happens at the end of a session. "In the pace of that happening, sometimes mistakes happen and I would say this is one that did."

Moore said he thinks the legislature can look at correcting this bill in August - after the filing period for school board closes - if the board of elections does not take a different interpretation.

A spokesman for the state board of elections has said its staff will not change its position on the matter, noting that the bill passed last week refers to a specific statute that dictates when candidates must file for office.

Cleveland County Board of Election Chairman Wayne King said he is troubled by the fact that the passage of a last-minute bill has led to this glitch in the county's school board race.

"I'm hoping we'll be cleared up," King said. "I think this was an oversight, obviously, but I think this is a pretty big oversight."

"This is not about Kathy Falls, this about unaffiliated voters being able to seek election and serve their communities," he continued.

But Falls said even if lawmakers address the current problem with her race, she will not be satisfied until the law is changed to allow unaffiliated candidates to run for office without gathering signatures, like those candidates registered with a political party.

"I think they need to remember where they came from. Just because you're in Raleigh doesn't mean the people in your county didn't send you there," Falls said.

"Make sure you read the bills that affect your county," she said. "One of the emails from one of the legislators says they didn't read the bill, weren't part of drafting it up. That concerns me because this bill affects his county, directly. And we elected him to serve us in Raleigh and he passed a bad bill."

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