Camden County voters have a rare opportunity in an upcoming special election. They’ll be voting on just one issue: whether to repeal or let stand a county commission decision to purchase property for a planned spaceport.
In Georgia, other recall efforts have targeted elected officials more than 40 times since 2005, according to the ballot-measure-tracking site Ballotpedia, although only four of those efforts made it to the ballot box. Georgia voters are also familiar with votes to decide about penny sales tax proposals.
But is this kind of referendum essentially a recall of a county commission resolution? That doesn’t happen every day, said Larry Ramsey, general counsel of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia.
“I can’t tell you of a similar situation either about a voter referendum to overturn a county decision,” said Ramsey, who’s worked at ACCG for about 30 years. “This is the first time I’ve seen this go that far.”
The question is headed to the voting booth thanks in large part to local resident and spaceport opponent Steve Weinkle, who combed through the Georgia Constitution. Weinkle saw that Article IX, Section II regarding home rule for counties provided a way to force a vote on the issue via a petition.
“At first, I thought that recalling the officials was the only approach available. But the legislature has made a recall election of elected officials extremely difficult (30% of registers voters on notarized petitions gathered within 90 days.) That would require a huge volunteer effort and a lot of money,” Weinkle wrote in an email. “It did not take long to find the Article II section of the Georgia Constitution about home rule and citizen-initiated special elections to reverse official decisions. Once it was obvious that the Constitution offered a pathway, I sought legal advice.”
Camden is in nearly the easiest possible position, population-wise, regarding the number of signatures needed under Article II. The county’s population of about 55,000 means signatures were required from only 10 percent of its active voters. Counties under 50,000 population need to reach at least 20 percent.
Weinkle began the petition drive pre-pandemic and eventually got help from the nonprofit One Hundred Miles to collect signatures.
“Covid restrictions caused us to cancel our first planned rally and then it became impossible to go door-to-door and street festivals were canceled, so we trudged along until One Hundred Miles came to the rescue with the funding for direct mail,” he wrote. “That closed the gap of about 2,000 petitions we needed.”
In December, two other Camden residents, Jim Goodman and Paul Harris, filed the petition in Probate Court. The court on Feb. 8 vetted the collection of 3,516 signatures — over the 10% of the 34,814 active voters required — and set the special election for March 8 with early voting beginning Feb. 26.
In the meantime a legal back and forth in Superior Court ultimately resulted in a court-ordered delay in consummating the land purchase until the voters have their say.
Voters will vote Yes or No on the following question about the planned purchase of the Union Carbide property where the county wants to develop a spaceport:
“Shall the resolutions of the Board of Commissioners of Camden County, Georgia
authorizing the Option Contract with Union Carbide Corporation and Camden County’s
right and option to purchase the property described therein be repealed.”
As with penny sales tax votes that local governments often support, Camden can’t put any money into campaigning for the spaceport vote.
“The Georgia courts have said that the government resources can’t be spent to say, vote yes. Or vote no,” Ramsey said. “But they can put out information, try to educate about what does it mean if you vote yes, and what does it mean, if you vote no.”
That doesn’t mean no one can spend money to get the word out.
“I’m sure there will be people who will try to get people to vote against the property sale here,” Ramsey said. “Citizens on the other side can certainly do the same thing. Because the issue here, according to the courts, is basically the use of tax dollars.”
Like Ramsey, UGA Professor Charles Bullock couldn’t recall a similar situation in Georgia where there was a vote on a specific action of a county commission.
But he sees the spaceport land referendum as a “not in my backyard” issue, albeit one being dealt with in an unusual way. Bullock likened it to the pushback he’s seen against the recently announced Rivian electric vehicle plant 45 miles east of Atlanta.
“Much closer to where I am in Athens, with the huge announcement of the Rivian plant that will come, there are all kinds of signs there with Rivian with a bar through it,” said Bullock, the Richard B. Russell Professor of Political Science.
John Matsusaka, executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, agrees that at the local level, land use is always a top issue with ordinary people.
“A more typical case would be they don’t want a big Walmart going in, for example, you know, or they don’t want some other kind of thing,” he said.
Matsusaka, who was unaware of the debate around Spaceport Camden until contacted by The Current, sees the referendum as a healthy response to the pessimism some feel about government.
“In general, people are frustrated with democracy, because they feel like they don’t have a lot of control over things, they feel like stuff happens above their heads in kind of a shadowy way,” he said. “In principle, I think this is a good thing because democracy is supposed to be self government — we govern ourselves — so this is almost by definition ‘we’re going to make a decision here about our community.'”
In the Ballopedia listing of Georgia recalls that have made it to the ballot since 2005, three of the four were successful recalls. It often goes that way, Matsusaka said.
“Nobody’s going to spend their time collecting signatures and doing this unless there’s kind of widespread irritation at the thing,” he said. “So that’s, that’s why my guess is that when people put these things on the ballot, it’s usually risen to the level that they quite often pass.”
Matsusaka trusts voters.
“Sometimes people want to caricature voters and suggest they’re just making the emotional knee jerk all the time, and they can’t think rationally at all,” he said. “But I think that’s really unfair. If you look at the history of the voting people, … they can make reasonable trade offs. And think about stuff. So this seems to be touching on a whole bunch of issues that it makes sense for the community to be discussing and thinking about how they’re going to weigh those different benefits and costs.”
Ultimately some of those participating and some of those just looking on see the upcoming referendum as a exercise in democracy, regardless of outcome.
“I think democracy is alive and well, even in a state that has not voted to have a woman have equal rights,” said Jannie Everette, a Camden resident and leader of the Thiokol Memorial Project. “These voters got a balanced ballot here. You either say yes or no. And let it go. Now, if you decide not to show up, and things don’t go your way. Don’t come back with that craziness. Let’s move on.”
If this effort is successful Georgia could see more like it.
“Imagine that,” Bullock said. “They are going to become part of the toolkit for interests that are opposed to what their county government is trying to do or their city government. Yeah. If you lose at the commission meeting, this would then be the fallback position.”
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