At last: Local activists who are active

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

A little less conversation, a little more action, please.

-- Elvis

The word "activist," by definition, implies that a person so labeled is actually doing something.

That's why I've found it hard to take seriously the hullabaloo surrounding the neo-"activism" that's abounded in the country, the state and the region over the last couple of years. (Funny thing, but it just hit me that this new-age activism started around the time President Obama was elected. Hmmm ...)

For a large number of the self-proclaimed activists who've risen from the rubble of the George Bush debacle in search of a target for their newfound anger, their activism has consisted primarily of two things: Complain and meet with like-minded people and complain some more.

Oh, and write anonymous letters to the newspaper.

But my skepticism has been vanquished by the honest-to-God activism of a group of Lee County citizens who are opposed to a county ordinance that requires the tax commissioner to add garbage fees to end-of-year ad valorem tax bills.

The ordinance, which is employed by more than a dozen other counties in Georgia, was passed as an attempt by the commission to stem the growing gusher of uncollected garbage fees. With an estimated 20 percent of its residents not paying the $23 monthly bill, the county is losing as much as $400,000 a year in revenue.

And, as Commissioner Bill Williams pointed out, the loss of revenue is not a new phenomenon. Williams said fees have gone uncollected since the county contracted for curbside garbage pickup in 1996. Those years of unpaid bills amount to fee losses surpassing $1 million.

The county's tax commissioner, Susan Smith, declared that she was not elected to collect garbage fees, and she refused to comply with the ordinance. The county sought in Superior Court -- and received -- a petition for a writ of mandamus that would compel Smith to comply with the ordinance.

And that's where we were until the end of the week.

That's when a group of citizens, spearheaded by W.F. Griffin, who is the state's longest-serving Tax Assessor Board member, and Mike Sabot, met to talk about options after Superior Court Judge James Sizemore granted the writ Aug. 3. They came up with an approach that is amazing only in its simplicity ... and that it has not been used more often.

The Georgia Constitution provides a means for citizens to try to repeal laws or ordinances that they feel are not in their best interest.

In order to do so, citizens need only get 20 percent of registered voters (25 percent in counties with populations less than 5,000; 10 percent in counties with populations greater than 50,000) to sign a clearly worded petition asking that the law or ordinance be amended or repealed.

The Probate Court judge in the county -- in Lee County's case, Judge John Wheaton -- must then determine if the petition is valid. If it is, he is bound by the Constitution to call for a special election on the repeal. If more than 50 percent of voters choose to repeal, the law is thrown out.

"The Constitution is very clear on this," said Wheaton, who has suddenly been thrust under the microscope in the case. "I'm surprised more people haven't used this to challenge unpopular laws.

"The Constitution is there for us to use, it just has to be done in the right manner."

Griffin, Sabot and others opposed to the garbage fees ordinance have already begun to collect signatures, and Sabot said Thursday the initial response from the community has been overwhelmingly supportive.

"I don't think we'll have any trouble collecting the number of signatures (3,377) needed," he said.

It doesn't really matter if you support a possible repeal of the garbage ordinance or if you think the County Commission has made a wise decision in its attempts to end nonpayment of fees. You have to admit that it's pretty impressive -- and downright refreshing -- to see a group of local activists who are actually active.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.