LEESBURG, Ga. -- A group of Lee County citizens, disappointed by a Superior Court judge's ruling that the county could add garbage fees to ad valorem tax bills, has turned to the state Constitution in an attempt to repeal the law.
Led by Board of Tax Assessors Chairman W.F. Griffin and local activist Mike Sabot, the group has started collecting signatures on a petition they hope to use to force an election to repeal the so-called garbage fee ordinance passed by the Lee County Commission on May 12, 2009.
The repeal effort grew out of a meeting Griffin, Sabot and others in the community held to discuss options after Judge James Sizemore handed down an Aug. 3 ruling that sided with the County Commission in its efforts to obtain a writ of mandamus that would compel Tax Commissioner Susan Smith to comply with the ordinance.
"I'm embarrassed at all the things I don't know," Griffin said Thursday. "And I just did not realize the Constitution includes a means for the repeal of laws and ordinances that are not in the best interest of citizens.
"I think Mike (Sabot) knew about this, and when we started talking about it, it just made sense. It's the simplest thing in the world; it's right there in the Constitution."
Sabot points to Article IX, Section II, Paragraph I, Subsection 2 of the Constitution, which reads in part:
"Amendments to or repeals of such local acts or ordinances, resolutions or regulations adopted ... hereof may be initiated by a petition filed with the judge of the Probate Court of the county ... in cases of counties with a population of more than 5,000 but not more than 50,000 by at least 20 percent of the electors registered to vote in the last general election."
"It couldn't be any clearer," Sabot said Thursday, the first day he and others started collecting signatures for the repeal petition. "We went to (Lee Probate Court) Judge (John) Wheaton for direction to make sure we did this the right way, and we went to (Elections Supervisor) Veronica Johnson to get a count of the signatures we needed.
"From the initial reaction I've gotten, I don't think we'll have any trouble getting the signatures. Of the first 10 people I approached, all 10 signed a petition, two took copies of the petition with them, and two people actually registered to vote."
Johnson said there was some question as to whether a repeal vote would include the cities of Leesburg and Smithville, but she said she expects an answer from the state soon.
"Based on the county's list of registered voters, (the group) would need 3,377 signatures to get 20 percent," Johnson said Thursday.
"Certainly any decision on the petition will come through Probate Court; that's clearly spelled out in the Constitution."
Wheaton said Thursday evening the citizens group had done what it needed to do to start collecting signatures on the petition.
"It appears they did everything the way they were supposed to," he said. "I looked over it, and I sought outside opinions, and it appears they did a thorough job of investigating what they were required (to seek a repeal).
"I understand Gwinnett County (has a group) looking at this, and I was contacted by some folks in Camden County. It appears to be a simple, cut-and-dried process, but no one's really looked at it before that I'm aware of. It's in the Constitution, and the Constitution is there for us to use. We just have to use it in the right manner."
The state Constitution goes on to outline guidelines for any such repeal petition:
(The) "petition shall specifically set forth the exact language of the proposed amendment or repeal. The judge of the Probate Court shall determine the validity of such petition within 60 days of its being filed. In the event the judge ... determines that such petition is valid, it shall be his duty to issue the call for an election for the purpose of submitting such amendment or repeal to the registered electors of the county for their approval or rejection."
The Probate Court Judge must, according to the Constitution, issue an election call within not less than 10 but not more than 60 days of determining the repeal petition valid, and he or she must set a date for a special election not less than 60 nor more than 90 days after the date of the filing. If more than 50 percent of voters vote to approve the repeal, the law or ordinance in question is invalidated.
"You read that, and look at the mood of the citizens of this county, and I think the handwriting is clearly on the wall," Griffin said. "Out of respect for the members of the commission, I plan to go to the chairman (Ed Duffy) and ask him to save the county the expense of further legal action and rescind the ordinance."
Duffy did not want to speak specifically about the repeal petition Thursday, but he did say the commission remains firm in its support of the ordinance.
"I've recently been made aware that a petition has been prepared to try and recall the county ordinance directing the tax commissioner to collect garbage fees," the board chairman said. "This does not change the county's position. This board stands firm on its decision to implement this ordinance.
"I cannot comment further about the petition since I have not seen it. But I will say (the board) is confident that the vast majority of Lee County citizens supports us in our efforts to try and collect unpaid garbage fees."
County Administrator Tony Massey said he knew little of the group's efforts to repeal the garbage fees ordinance.
"We haven't really discussed it at length, so I can't say a lot about it," Massey said Thursday. "I will say, though, that based on past experience, recall efforts are extremely difficult. (The citizens) certainly have a right to pursue this action, but my experience is that it's a steep hill to climb."
Massey also acknowledged that he'd received word from County Attorney Jimmy Skipper Thursday that Smith's lawyer, Jerome Adams, had filed an appeal of Sizemore's ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Griffin said the attempt to overturn the county ordinance is not the effort of any particular party.
"I am a red-blooded, patriotic American," he said. "I'm not part of the tea party or the Republican party or the Democratic party. But I would join any of them in a fight like this to secure our Constitutional rights.
"My wife and many others have told me 'Why bother? There's nothing you can do' since the judge handed down his ruling. But it's important that citizens see that there is something we can do."
Sabot, meanwhile, said the group's efforts could serve as a wake-up call for the state, adding that groups in Camden, Sumter and Jasper counties -- which have ordinances similar to the one passed in Lee County -- have contacted the Lee group asking for a copy of the petition.
"This is not just about Lee County and its issues," he said. "The Constitution applies to every county in Georgia. We are given rights as citizens; it's up to us to exercise them."
Sabot said copies of the repeal petition are available at the offices of the Lee County Ledger and at Heidelberg's Auto.