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Sullivan’s Island Citizens Group Still Fighting for Referendum

A Sullivan’s Island citizens group plans to continue pushing for a public vote on a controversial  elementary school-construction project, despite inaction by the Town Council on a sought-after referendum, a group spokeswoman said this week.

Town Council in February filed a lawsuit in Charleston County Circuit Court against “Islanders for a Smaller School,” contending that the town had “no legal obligation” to act on a referendum petition submitted by the citizens group.

The Nerve on March 5 published a story on the suit, raising questions about whether the council’s actions violated the voting rights of the citizens group. Critics contended the suit was a clear abuse of power.

That evening, Town Council voted unanimously to drop the suit.

For the time being, however, the majority of council members still opposes a referendum, though Joseph Debney, executive director of the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, earlier told The Nerve that the citizens group collected enough valid signatures under state law for a referendum.

Organizers of the petition drive said their petition contained 261 valid signatures, or 18 percent of the island’s registered voters. They point out that the petition was certified by the county elections board on Oct. 18, before Town Council ratified a land lease with the Charleston County School District for the proposed new school.

Under state law, a public vote on a petition issue must be held not less than 30 days nor more than a year after the governing body’s final vote on the petition. Organizers of the Sullivan’s Island petition drive have said their group plans to sue Town Council if it refuses to hold a referendum within the year deadline.

“Based on the number of residents who have contacted me about donating funds for a lawsuit against Town Council, this issue is far from over,” Barbara Spell, spokeswoman for Islanders for a Smaller School, told The Nerve in an email this week.

In voting to drop the town's suit, Councilman Jerry Kaynard, an attorney, said the suit could not be brought because no person would agree to represent the citizens group in court, according to a story in the (Charleston) Post and Courier. But Spell told The Nerve that five island residents have “stepped forward to be served individually.”

Spell said there is plenty of time to hold a referendum, noting she was informed that the construction contract is not scheduled to be let until Oct. 23, and that the school district has not yet applied for construction permits.

The Charleston County School District plans to build a new elementary school on land owned by the town to replace the existing Sullivan’s Island Elementary School, which is not in use. Supporters say the new school is needed because the 50-plus-year-old existing building is outdated and unsafe.

Members of the citizens group say they are not opposed to building a new school, but they contend that the proposed $26 million, 74,000-square-foot school, which would be twice as large as the existing building, wouldn’t mesh with the island’s overall architecture. The proposed larger school also would reduce property values and cause serious traffic and pollution problems, they say.

The group’s petition called for a public vote if a proposed ordinance by the group calling for a smaller school on the site wasn’t adopted by the seven-member Town Council.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

Accountability K-12 Local Government

Sullivan's Island Town Council Islanders for a Smaller School