Sullivan’s Island Residents’ Voting Rights Violated?

March 5, 2012

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Sullivan's IslandUPDATE 3/6/12: The Sullivan’s Island Town Council voted unanimously Monday evening to drop the town’s lawsuit against the citizens group, according to a story today in the Charleston Post and Courier. The Nerve story below raising questions about the lawsuit was posted Monday morning.

 

In what critics contend is an abuse of power, the town of Sullivan’s Island is suing a citizens group seeking a public vote on a controversial elementary school construction project.

The grassroots group of Sullivan’s Island residents, known as “Islanders for a Smaller School,” submitted a petition in October asking the Town Council to either adopt an ordinance proposed by the group or put the issue to a vote of island residents.

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 Supporters say the new school is needed because the 50-plus-year-old existing school is outdated and unsafe.

Members of Islanders for a Smaller School 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 fit in with the island’s overall architecture. The proposed school would drive down property values in addition to causing traffic congestion and pollution problems, the group claims.

The citizens group organized a petition drive and collected the number of required signatures under state law to force an election if their proposed ordinance, which called for a smaller school on the site, wasn’t adopted by Town Council.

Town Council neither adopted their proposed ordinance nor scheduled an election on the issue. Instead, the seven-member body last year approved a land-lease agreement with the Charleston County School District that would clear the way for the larger school.

Then last month, the town, following through on an earlier vote, filed a lawsuit in Charleston County Circuit Court against the citizens group. The suit, which seeks a judge’s ruling and no monetary damages, contends that the town has “no legal obligation under the laws of the State of South Carolina to act on the petition or submit it or its proposed ordinance to the voters in a referendum.”

“They’re spending taxpayer dollars to sue us,” said Barbara Spell, spokeswoman for the citizens group, when contacted last week by The Nerve. “They can bleed us dry.”

Spell said the citizens group doesn’t have the money right now to afford an attorney for a court fight.

Asked if she believed the lawsuit constituted an abuse of power by the town, Spell replied, “We followed the law in getting the petition together.”

Lawsuit ‘Outrageous’

Contacted last week by The Nerve, Jim Gordon, state coordinator of a voter initiative-rights project known as “Voters-in-Charge,” called the town’s decision to file the suit “outrageous.”

“It’s just an abuse of power when organized politicians take on unorganized citizens,” he said. “Government shouldn’t sue citizens.”

Gordon said although he couldn’t comment on specifics of the lawsuit because he’s not involved with the case, “the whole idea that things can be decided by popular vote is the way to go.”

Sullivan’s Island Mayor Carl Smith, who voted against all three readings of the land lease and unsuccessfully pushed to delay final ratification of the lease until a referendum could be held, told The Nerve last week that he is “not at all pleased with the way things have gone.”

“Even more outrageous is that these citizens have to hire an attorney at their expense for a declaratory judgment for a right that they have,” he said.

Smith said the town hired an outside attorney at $300 an hour to handle the lawsuit. Town Administrator Andy Benke told The Nerve last week that the hired attorney, G.Trenholm Walker of Charleston, who declined comment for this story, has “done some work, but I don’t know exactly the number of hours.”

The Nerve last week sent written requests to Town Council members who voted to approve the land lease. Several declined in writing to respond, referring questions to fellow council member and attorney Jerry Kaynard.

Contacted last week, Kaynard provided The Nerve with a Feb. 15 press release on behalf of Town Council announcing the filing of the lawsuit.

“We do not want to waste taxpayer’s money on a referendum with ineffective and inconclusive results, but we also want to make certain that residents who want the referendum are given the opportunity to know their opinions have been heard through an open and impartial process,” Kaynard said in the release.

Kaynard said in a written response to The Nerve last week that he would not be immediately available for a follow-up interview.

This is not the first time accusations of abuse of power have been made in connection with the Sullivan’s Island school construction project.

The Nerve reported in August that then-Charleston County School Board member Mary Ann Taylor contended that she was targeted by the board chairman and threatened with removal after she forwarded an electronic copy of the proposed land lease to a constituent.

Taylor, a critic of the school construction project, later resigned her seat, saying in a prepared statement, “The vast majority of the (school) Board has no interest in doing what’s best for the children of Charleston County, only promoting their own personal interests.”

Skirting State Law?

The town’s lawsuit says that Town Council is “not required to conduct a referendum in a called public election for consideration of Petitioners’ proposed ordinance under these circumstances.” It noted that the town and school district “entered a binding lease,” and that the citizens group’s proposed ordinance and referendum, if successful, would “impair” their “contractual rights.”

State law says qualified voters of a municipality may “propose any ordinance, except an ordinance appropriating money or authorizing the levy of taxes.” Organizers of the Sullivan’s Island petition drive say their proposed ordinance doesn’t meet either the appropriation or taxation exceptions under state law and therefore is legal.

Under state law, a municipality must conduct a referendum on a proposed ordinance if organizers submit a petition signed by at least 15 percent of registered voters in the last regular municipal election, and if the governing body refuses to adopt the proposed ordinance or “substantially” changes it. An election must be held not less than 30 days nor more than a year after the date of the governing body’s final vote.

Organizers of the Sullivan’s Island petition drive said their petition contained 261 valid signatures, or 18 percent of the island’s registered voters. Joseph Debney, executive director of the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, told The Nerve last week that the citizens group collected enough valid signatures under state law.

But Debney also said the Board of Elections doesn’t determine whether the stated purpose of the referendum petition complies with S.C. law, adding, “I’ve never heard of a county election commission doing that.”

Asked who is authorized under the law to settle those types of disputes, Debney replied, “I don’t know; that’s a good question.”

Billy Want, a member of the Sullivan’s Island citizens group and an environmental law attorney who teaches at the Charleston School of Law, told The Nerve last week that he helped prepare the referendum petition. He said, though, he is not formally representing the group.

Want said he doesn’t buy the town’s legal argument that the requested referendum is “moot” because a lease was signed, noting, “Our view is that contracts are broken all the time.” He added that because there has been no construction at the site, there would be plenty of time to hold an election.

He also said the town’s reliance on an earlier state Supreme Court ruling dealing with referendums on zoning questions doesn’t apply in this case, explaining that the issue at hand is not a zoning matter.

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