Camden County bills itself as having “Leadership that Listens.” But it’s not listening to its voters.
On Tuesday, the County Commission unanimously agreed to move forward with its purchase of a property for its planned spaceport, despite the results of a March 8 referendum in which voters rejected the purchase.
However, the owner of the 4,000-acre marsh-front industrial property, Union Carbide, issued a statement Thursday indicating it’s hesitant to move forward because of the referendum and associated litigation.
How Camden got here
Camden County has spent more than $11 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 commissioners and the county administrator see the spaceport as the catalyst for creating a “silicon marsh” that would drive economic development in the 56,000-person county for years to come. Spaceport opponents, including residents Steve Weinkle and Jim Goodman who are running for commission posts, see the effort as a waste of money shrouded in too much secrecy.
The county has spent almost $500,000 just this year on Spaceport Camden, a response to an open records request revealed. Almost $200,000 was spent on attorneys defending the county over allegations it has been overzealous in keeping information hidden from the public.
The question put to voters on March 8 ballot asked: “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with Union Carbide Corporation and Camden County’s right and option to purchase the property described therein be repealed.”
It passed by a nearly 3-1 margin, with a 17% of active voters turning out to cast a ballot in the single-issue special election. The Camden County Board of Elections reported 4,169 “yes” votes to repeal versus 1,613 “no” votes. The county appealed the election’s validity to the Georgia Supreme Court, but it’s not expected to take up the case until this summer.
With the purchase option contract set to expire Wednesday, the County Commission called an emergency meeting on Tuesday.
The five commissioners met for about an hour in private executive session. They then returned to the open meeting and voted unanimously to “place Union Carbide Corporation on notice of the County’s intent to exercise its rights pursuant to the Option Contract as amended to date.”
The Commission issued a statement to The Current Thursday:
“At its April 12, 2022 special called meeting, the Board of Commissioners approved the purchase of the Union Carbide property where the Spaceport would be located. The Board determined that moving forward in this fashion was in the best interest of the County in order to protect the launch site operator license that was recently issued and the millions of dollars the County has invested so far in the Spaceport. The Board investigated pursuing other options, but (Union Carbide) left no other choice for the Board but to approve the purchase of the property.”
Union Carbide responded to an inquiry from The Current with its own statement Thursday.
“Camden County has notified Union Carbide Company (UCC) of its request to exercise the Option Agreement to purchase UCC’s property in Woodbine, Georgia,” an unidentified spokesperson wrote. “UCC is evaluating that request under the Option Agreement in light of the County’s ongoing litigation and current injunction regarding its purchase of the property.”
Megan Desrosiers, the president and CEP of the nonprofit One Hundred Miles, applauded Union Carbide’s response.
“It appears that Union Carbide is considering the rights granted to Camden County’s voters by the Georgia Constitution, even when their commissioners refuse to do so,” she wrote in an email. “UCC looks to be sending the message that the will of the voters and the integrity of an election are more important than the economic gain that could be received from selling their property to Camden County.”
One Hundred Miles assisted in the collection of signatures on the petition that ultimately forced the referendum.
The Board of Commissioners says they’re sure they’ll win in court.
“The Board firmly believes the March 8 referendum election was not a valid mechanism to repeal the County’s rights under the Option Contract with UCC. The March 8 referendum was not even an accurate assessment of a majority of the electorate’s view on the issue. The Supreme Court of Georgia has also previously addressed this exact issue for city governments in Georgia, and it has concluded that such a referendum is not permitted under the law. The Board is therefore confident its position will ultimately be vindicated by the Supreme Court which is now considering the case.”
Analysts and attorney’s response
Savannah-based political consultant Dave Simons, who has not been involved in the spaceport question, said the political calculus may hinge on the low turnout in a situation like this. With fewer than 6,000 people voting, commissioners are unlikely to see the results as a mandate.
“What it really showcases is the lack of interest in the idea one way or the other,” he said. “You didn’t have a strong enough pro vote out there. And certainly your negative vote wasn’t that overwhelming either. So in the minds of the county commissioners, they’re probably looking at it going, ‘well, that didn’t show us anything. In the interest of economic development, the area better go forward.'”
Or they see the project’s value as worth the risk of angering voters and losing their seats.
“You basically have a county commission, that, in their minds think that this economic opportunity is far more important than their terms as a county commissioner.”
Doing so may further erode already waning trust in government, said Charles Bullock, Richard B. Russell professor of political science at the University of Georgia.
“Certainly if the county is able to go ahead with this, it will be very frustrating,” he said, noting the years-long effort that went into producing the referendum. “(They’ll think) ‘we got the signatures, we got on the ballot, we won and then thinking the county moves the goalposts.'”
Low turnout is common to lots of elections, especially special issue elections like a penny sales tax vote and runoffs, Bullock said.
“They may be right that it was not a good representation of the preferences within the community,” he said. “But you could raise that same kind of claim against all kinds of elections that we have, and that we don’t try to overturn.”
The Commission also indicated it didn’t think it needed the Supreme Court’s blessing.
“Even if the Supreme Court disagrees, those who are adamantly opposed to the Spaceport also recognize that taking a new vote on the issue was always an option for the Board to pursue,” they said in their statement.
That raises another question, Bullock said.
“Does this means that if a government disagrees with a referendum, they can continue to adopt the same resolution over and over again?” he said.
John G. Matsusaka, executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California reviewed the referendum results and the commission’s statement at the request of The Current.
“This is not the first time that a sitting government has tried to overturn the results of a referendum — it’s rather common, sadly,” he wrote in an email.
“Leaving aside the technical issue of whether this type of referendum is or is not permitted under the law, the election returns show clearly that citizens are against this project. In a democracy, representatives are supposed to incorporate the people’s wishes into their decisions. It’s surprising that the commissioners seem indifferent to the expressed wishes of those they represent.”
Attorneys for the referendum backers are still considering their next step. But Attorney Dana Braun denounced the commission’s actions.
“If that referendum is valid, which we believe it is, then once those results were certified by the probate judge to the Secretary of State they no longer had an option agreement on which to act,” Braun said. “What they’re doing is being disingenuous.
“The petition was valid, the referendum took place, and the county commission doesn’t have the power to do this.”
County Commission Chairman Gary Blount and Commissioner Trevor Readdick did not respond to a request for comment. Georgia Rep. Steven Sainz, who authored an unsuccessful bill to sunset the Camden Spaceport Authority, also did not respond to a request from The Current.
Editor’s note: This story was updated April 19 with a comment from John G. Matsusaka, executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.