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Expo petition still short of 6,000

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With three days to go before the deadline for submitting a petition to require a countywide referendum on funding for the planned Wilson County Expo Center, opponents of the center don't claim they have enough valid signatures yet to submit the petition successfully.

Citing rain that has kept volunteers from going door-to-door and businesses that don't allow political solicitation in front of their stores, the petition's sponsors say they hope to gather the necessary 6,000-plus signatures by Monday, June 8, the legal deadline.

The Expo Center opponent most visibly leading the petition drive, Vice Secretary Jeff Hartline of the executive committee of the Wilson County Republican Party, also said this week that he has no estimate yet of how many signatures the group already has. The effort needs the signatures of at least 10 percent of registered county voters to successfully require a referendum.

About 40 or 50 volunteers are collecting signatures, according to Hartline, who said he opposes the Expo Center because he believes government investing in projects that private businesses could build is inappropriate.

Referendum drive questioned
However, some Wilson County Republicans are asking whether the GOP executive committee, which is spearheading the referendum drive, is playing an appropriate role by opposing the decision by the Wilson County Commission to issue up to $10 million in bonds to build the Expo Center.

Under state law, the petitions must be completed and submitted to County Clerk Jim Goodall by June 8, which is 20 days after the commission's May 19 vote to approve the bond issue. The county election commission then would have 15 days to verify the validity of the signatures and certify the petition.

But a vote of the full-paid membership of the county Republican Party should have been taken before the referendum drive even got this far, contends Ward 3 City Councilor Rob Cesternino of Lebanon, a fully-paid member himself who said he was never notified that the Expo Center issue was being brought before his party for consideration.

Decision made 'by consensus'
County Republican Chair Tom Hoffman said that following a party meeting in the office of State Rep. Mark Pody (R-57), the "consensus was that the party needed to do something" to block the center.

Hoffman added that an executive committee meeting which followed the party gathering voted in favor of launching the petition, with only one committee member opposed.

Pody said he was not at either meeting and that since the Expo Center is a local rather than a state issue, he is not involved. State Rep. Susan Lynn (R-46) basically echoed Pody's sentiments, saying she also is not involved in the local issue.

Exactly who is involved is a little less clear, however. Chairman Hoffman would not release even the names of the GOP executive committee members, saying he is protecting their privacy. "I believe I'm the position I am because I refuse to give out that kind of information," he said.

Hoffman said he isn't sure how many people are committee members, but he estimated there are 11, and only "eight or nine" attended the meeting that voted to launch the petition for a referendum.

However, Lynn knew at least the names of the committee's officers, although there may be more committee members whose names she doesn't know. In addition to Hoffman and Hartline, the executive officers include Vice Chair Yvonne Hunter, Secretary John Haley, Treasurer Terri Nicholson, and Vice Treasurer Menda Holmes, according to Lynn.

An effort to contact those officers did not result in any comments from the group.

Cesternino wants members' input
Councilor Cesternino said he wants to know how the group could claim the Republican Party supports opposing the Expo Center when there hasn't been a vote on it.

"I want to know have they polled the party members," he said. "They're spending my membership dues to do something I am not for. No one from the Wilson County Republican Party has asked me where I stand."

Most monthly meetings are attended by 20 or 30 people out of the several thousand registered Republicans in the county, Cesternino said, adding that it isn't in the best interests of the community to oppose votes taken by their elected officials.

"Why do all this after the vote?" he asked. "The time for protest was before the vote. I'm a lifelong member of the Republican Party, but I'm not for action after the fact."

If party members were polled, Cesternino said, they wouldn't all agree with the referendum petition. "I'm for the Expo Center, and any Republicans I've talked to support it," the city councilor commented.

Meanwhile, Hartline said his group also has encountered a number of difficulties in obtaining the needed signatures on its petitions.

"It has been raining and that makes it harder to go door-to-door," he said. "Local businesses have not been willing to allow us to set up a table outside their doors, either. I guess it's okay for the Girl Scouts, but not for a group trying to save the taxpayers' money."

The volunteers will continue to work through this weekend, according to Hartline, and then on Monday, the signature count will determine whether they turn the petition in to the county clerk.

Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.

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