A judge has denied Camden County the relief it sought to invalidate an ongoing referendum related to its planned Spaceport Camden. But that’s not necessarily the end of this election dispute. The judge also authorized an appeal of his order, noting that a vote of this kind may be unprecedented in Georgia.

By Friday, almost 2,000 voters had cast a ballot in early voting for the March 8 election.

As Judge Stephen Scarlett outlined in his order Friday, “At the heart of this case is the Spaceport Camden project and the County’s purchase of a 4,000-acre tract of of land on which it intends to construct the Spaceport.”

spaceport vote sign
A campaign sign in Woodbine urges voters to vote yes in the special election. A no vote would be in favor of the land purchase and the project. By law, the county cannot spend money to sway voters. Credit: Mary Landers/The Current

Citizens sought to repeal the Board of Commissioners’ resolutions to buy the property by using a referendum procedure contained in the Georgia Constitution. Probate Court Judge Robert Sweatt Jr. ordered the referendum last month after the elections supervisor vetted that the petition had been signed by the required number of active voters, more than 3,500 in this case.

Camden County has spent more than $10 million and six years to develop its Spaceport Camden to launch small commercial rockets up to 12 times a year. The Federal Aviation Administration issued the county a spaceport operator’s license in December but more hurdles remain before the facility becomes a reality, the first one being the land purchase.

County officials say the spaceport will provide economic and educational opportunities with the booming space industry. Detractors say the project is a boondoggle and they don’t want local government taking on the risk associated with the polluted site, where munitions and pesticides were manufactured for decades.

County colleagues split

The county contends Sweatt misinterpreted the Constitution and that it does not allow a referendum election to repeal the resolutions of the Board of Commissioners at issue.

This difference of opinion between the County Commission and the county’s probate court judge made for an unusual scene at the hearing Thursday at the Glynn County Courthouse.

Camden County Attorney John Myers ordinarily serves as counsel for Judge Sweatt. They’re colleagues. But in this case the county, in a motion Myers wrote, was suing its own judge.

Instead of sitting together, the Camden County Attorney and the Camden County Probate Court Judge gave each other a wide berth. Myers sat on the left at the plaintiff’s table with County Commission Chairman Gary Blount. As the hearing began, Sweatt took a seat not with his county colleagues nor with the attorneys for the petition signers who were intervenors in the case, but in the well of the courtroom against the left wall, alone.

Sweatt testified that when the petition was filed in December he invited briefs from both Myers and attorneys for the petitioners because there was “no precedent, no law” on the process of forcing a referendum of this type by petition. Neither party provided one. Sweatt then looked to the Georgia Constitution.

“I took an oath to uphold the Constitution, the United States Constitution and the State of Georgia’s,” he said. “… All I could do was follow the Constitution, the plain text and language. And that’s in essence what I did.”

Myers himself didn’t seem entirely at ease with his position.

“I don’t like the terminology here — gross abuse,” he told Judge Scarlett. “I don’t think that Judge Sweatt by simply signing this order and calling for this election necessarily grossly abused. But if you accept the proposition that this is not constitutionally sound, then it may be construed as a gross abuse of his powers or discretion.”

Myers repeated the argument he had already made in a series of hearings that ultimately delayed the purchase of the property until after the election. His argument rests on his belief that 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. He relied on the case Kemp v. City of Claxton. The county argued the resolution to buy land doesn’t qualify. Judge Sweatt and the 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.

At the conclusion of the hearing Myers asked “for a ruling in short order in this case,” given the March 8 election. He then anticipated the ruling against the county and provided the judge with a draft of the “certificate of immediate review,” which Scarlett issued Friday.

Myers did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Attorneys for the intervenors did respond.

“We are pleased with this decision and feel it is correct as we believe that the County is not entitled to seek this extraordinary type of relief against Probate Judge Sweatt or against this special election process,” said Dana Braun, who along with attorneys Kim Butler and Philip Thompson represented the intervenors, Camden residents James Goodman and Paul Harris.

Mary Landers covers Coastal Georgia’s environment for The Current, a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time there writing about health,...