Camden County on Thursday filed a petition in Superior Court to invalidate the results of the upcoming referendum on Spaceport Camden, calling it a “straw poll.”

The filing came just two days before early voting on the referendum is scheduled to begin Saturday for the March 8 special election. Elections Supervisor Shannon Nettles said voting will proceed as planned.

“I have not been told otherwise,” she said.

The county believes the probate court erred in calling for the special election and should not certify the results.

“Opinions from the Supreme Court of Georgia and the Georgia Attorney General strongly suggest that this sort of election is not authorized under Georgia law and that the County is prohibited from spending county funds on an election like this,” County Administrator Steve Howard wrote in an email to The Current. “The Board of Commissioners does not want to waste the taxpayers’ money on an election that the courts may ultimately deem unlawful and the results voided. But in light of the pending litigation, the County will not comment any further.”  

No hearing date had been set as of late Friday.

Camden has spent over six years and $10 million to develop a commercial spaceport from which small rockets would launch vertically up to 12 times per year. The Federal Aviation Administration approved a site operator’s license for the county in December, but the license is conditioned on the county purchasing the Union Carbide property where it will be located.

Spaceport opponents say it’s a boondoggle that may never launch a single rocket and could saddle the county with the risk of polluted property. Proponents, including the county commission and county administrator, see it as an opportunity for economic development.

Earlier this month Probate Court Judge Robert C. Sweatt Jr. put the election on the calendar after citizens presented a petition with more than 3,500 signatures requesting the referendum, a seldom-used remedy outlined in the Georgia Constitution.

Voters will respond yes or no to a single question:

“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with Union Carbide Corporation and Camden County’s right and option to purchase the property described therein be repealed.”

A “yes” vote is anti-spaceport. A “no” vote is pro-spaceport.

The county has already argued its case in a series of hearings that ultimately delayed the purchase of the property until after the election. Its argument rests on its belief that the the petition and referendum provision of the Constitution is intended to be available only when local acts of the General Assembly are to be amended or repealed. It cited only one case, Kemp v. City of Claxton. The county argued the resolution to buy land doesn’t qualify. Attorneys for the citizens seeking the special election say the “plain language” of the Constitution, which discusses the repeal of “ordinances, resolutions or regulations,” allows the referendum by petition.

Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett in his Jan. 20 order told the county their argument should be addressed to the probate court.

But the county did not make this argument to probate court. It instead argued there that because some residents signed the petition more than once the petition was “a fraud upon the Court.”

Probate Court Judge Sweatt dismissed that notice as inappropriate and ordered Nettles, the elections supervisor, to vet the signatures, removing duplicates.

After Nettles found sufficient signatures had been filed Sweatt ordered the County to hold a referendum election. The county’s petition is directed against Sweatt in in his official capacity as probate court judge. As a county probate judge, Sweatt would ordinarily rely on the legal services of County Attorney John Myers, who wrote the petition.

“… Judge Sweatt lacked the authority and jurisdiction to issue such an order,” the county’s most recent filing states. “The March 8 election is therefore illegal, the results will be a nullity, and in effect the County will have conducted a “straw vote,” for which it lacks authority to expend public funds.”

The two men who filed the petition on behalf of their fellow citizens, James Goodman and Paul Harris, were named as interested parties in the filing against Judge Sweatt. Both men filed as intervenors in the matter Friday.