Jackie Eichhorn is a petite woman, 79, white hair cut in a pixie. She wore a cozy gray turtleneck sweater on Tuesday to keep warm in a chilly Camden County Courthouse where she had been compelled to appear.
It was a long wait. She arrived as ordered at 9:30 a.m., was sequestered until lunch and then again until 2:30 p.m., when the county attorney called her to testify as one of seven Camden residents subpoenaed by the government as part of the fight being waged by at least 10% of the county’s registered voters against their elected officials.
At stake, depending on whom you talk to, is the future of the Camden County Commissioners’ planned spaceport. The county manager and county commissioners say it will be a premier job creator for the county and many residents deride the project as a boondoggle or environmental catastrophe. But the tactics used in the debate over proper spending of taxpayer funds also illuminate a rarely used constitutional provision for Georgians to defy local government.
What was being discussed in court on Jan. 11 was a petition. Namely, the fact that the seven residents, all in their 60s or 70s, had signed a petition more than once over the course of two years with the intent of stopping the Spaceport Camden project.
The petition in question was filed in probate court last month seeking to repeal County Commission resolutions to purchase 4,000 acres of land from Union Carbide. The county wants the land for a spaceport, though the petition never uses the word “spaceport” or even alludes to the project.
Filers say the petition was signed by more than 10% of the registered voters in Camden, the threshold written into the state constitution for forcing a referendum on the issue. Camden’s elections officials are currently vetting those signatures, as they’re required by law to do within 60 days of the filing on Dec. 14.
The hearing Tuesday before Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett was to determine if Camden County must delay the purchase until the probate court evaluates the petition that calls for the county’s voters to weigh in on the purchase.
Despite the petition’s avoidance of the term “spaceport,” arguments for and against the project in which the county has invested more $10 million over the last six years came up repeatedly at the hearing. Witnesses also spoke of pollution at the site, where chemical companies including Thiokol, Rhone-Poulenc, Union Carbide and Bayer Crop Science produced a steady stream of munitions and pesticides over the span of half a century. An environmental covenant on the 4,000 acres prohibits housing or the use of groundwater anywhere within its boundaries to reduce exposure to lingering pollutants.
“Purchasing a site with that magnitude and history of environmental problems which are not fully understood or documented, could be a huge burden on the taxpayers for decades to come,” testified Paul Harris, one of two named plaintiffs in both the request for an injunction and the request for a referendum. “Quite irrespective of what use the property might be put to. It’s not a trivial thing to purchase an environmental site with the history that that one has. And the owners, the new owners, which will be the county, will be responsible for whatever cleanup or mitigation is mandated for the future.”
Georgia law does not prohibit signing a petition of this type multiple times.
“It’s not illegal to sign more than once,” said Plaintiff’s attorney Dana Braun in a phone interview. “It’s absolutely not.”
And it’s the probate court, not petitioners, that is required to vet the validity of the signatures. But still Camden County Attorney John Myers argued in part that the inclusion of duplicate signatures was “a fraud upon the court” and therefore the plaintiffs had “unclean hands” and the related injunction shouldn’t be granted.
Myers, whose salary is paid by Camden taxpayers, questioned signers — all residents of the county — about why they signed more than once, where they got the petition and whether it was “fair” to count a petition signature twice.
“Were you advised by any of the proponents of this petition as to how many times you could sign it?” he asked multiple witnesses. “Is it fair to say you were unaware of the number of times you can sign this petition? Were you confused about the effect of multiple signatures?”
Some testified they merely forgot they had signed before. Others weren’t sure it was the same petition each time. Some, like Eichhorn, had logical reasons for signing twice. She testified that while she goes by Jackie, her legal first name is Mary. After she first signed as “M. Jacqueline Eichhorn” she signed again more than two years later as “Mary Jacqueline Eichhorn.”
“I was just trusting that the wrong petition (signature) would be eliminated and that everything would be fine,” Eichhorn testified. “I just wanted to be sure that my name was counted.”
Similarly, Colleen Weinkle signed the petition in 2019 and more than a year later in 2020. Myers wanted to know why.
“Well, I didn’t realize that I signed two,” she said. “I signed one and then you can see it’s almost a year later that I signed another one. So I must have forgotten I signed the first one.”
Weinkle is a trustee of the newly formed Woodbine Public Library. Her husband, Steve Weinkle, has been active in opposing the spaceport including helping to organize the petition, a fact Myers queried repeatedly.
“Are you married?” he asked. “Who’s your husband?” When she didn’t know details of gathering the signatures or renting a post office box, he asked, “You do live together?”
“I don’t get into his business,” Colleen Weinkle said.
Myers continued to press her, asking “Is it fair to say Ms. Weinkle, that you of all people should be aware of this petition and who gathers it?
“No,” she replied.
Myers also argued that the petitioners should have acted sooner. The county originally signed an option agreement with Union Carbide in 2015 and extended it twice. But the county never made public all the details of the agreements, including its most recent expiration date of Jan. 13, 2022, and has fought the release of the details, claiming an exemption under the Georgia Open Records Act.
“You are certainly aware that the option was entered into in 2015, weren’t you?” Myers asked Eichhorn. “And you could have started a referendum petition as early as 2015 to repeal that act of the county commission, couldn’t you?”
Eichhorn countered that doing so would have been premature in 2015 and, while she had been outspoken against the spaceport project, she’s not a constitutional scholar.
“I was not aware of the opportunity of filing a petition that I had very little to do with the petition itself except as a signer of the petition,” Eichhorn testified. “I’m not legally versed and I did not know that that was a constitutional option. As soon as I learned that it was, I was very eager to sign,” she testified.
‘A bad look’ for county
Eichhorn was collected on the stand but said later she didn’t appreciate being questioned.
“It’s a very bad look to be attacking citizens,” she said.
Attorney Myers didn’t mask his disdain for Paul Harris, a former airline pilot and county resident since 2018. As he did with petition signers, Myers argued Harris should have acted sooner, but this time he added insulting language.
“And you indeed got to file that petition in the probate court, didn’t you?” he asked. “And you could have done that back in 2018 when you inflicted yourself upon us here in Camden County, correct?”
There was an audible gasp in the courtroom at the use of the word “inflicted.”
Probate Court Judge Robert C. Sweatt Jr. assigned Camden County Elections Supervisor Shannon Nettles the task of vetting the petition signatures. At the hearing, Nettles revealed she helped Myers build his case about repeat signers, sharing with him a packet of the first sets of duplicates she identified.
Nettles said she had contacted the Georgia Secretary of State’s office for guidance on vetting the signatures. Deputy General Counsel Sarah Beck told her to consult her county attorney. Nettles didn’t explain to Beck that her county attorney was also representing the defendant in this case.
In a subsequent email to Myers, Nettles wrote, “In addition, and John this is just to you, I have 3 more items for us to think about besides original signatures.” She then listed the age of some signatures, plus the lack of affidavits and notarizations. None of those are reasons to reject the petition signatures.
Nettles, who is able to verify signatures because as registrar she has custody of voter registration cards, testified that 3,481 signatures are needed for the petition to move forward. Of the first 1,200 signatures, 1,100 were acceptable, she said. If that rate continues for all the almost 4,000 signatures submitted, the petition will reach the required threshold to force a referendum.
Judge Scarlett will rule on the injunction by Jan. 23. In the meantime, the Camden County Commission held a special called meeting Thursday, the day its option contract expires, to discuss “real estate” and agreed to an extended deadline.
Union Carbide responded Tuesday to The Current’s inquiry about negotiations with the county to extend the option contract.
“With regard to your inquiry, Union Carbide does not comment on real estate matters,” wrote Tomm F. Sprick of the Union Carbide Information Center.