LEESBURG -- One of the leaders of a group seeking signatures on a petition calling for the repeal of a controversial garbage fee collection ordinance in Lee County said Wednesday the group will tally its signatures Tuesday to determine whether it has enough to present to the county's Probate Court judge.
Mike Sabot, an activist who is affiliated with both the Lee County Republican Party and the area tea party movement, said more than 300 citizens in the community had gotten involved in gathering signatures on copies of the petition.
"We plan to collect all the petitions next week and see where we are," Sabot said. "We're not working under any time limit, so if we don't have enough signatures we'll start canvassing subdivisions. If we do, we'll take them directly to Judge (John) Wheaton.
"Since we have more than 300 people who have volunteered to collect signatures, I'm pretty confident we'll get the number needed."
The group, which opposes an ordinance passed by the Lee County Commission on May 12, 2009, that calls for yearly garbage fees to be placed on ad valorem tax bills in an effort to curb rampant nonpayment, turned to the Georgia Constitution in its efforts to have the ordinance repealed. Wheaton signed off on the wording of a petition that, if signed by 20 percent of the county's registered voters (3,377), would pave the way for a possible countywide repeal vote.
The placement of copies of the petition at a number of prominent locations around the county, including the tax office, has stirred further debate in the community about the already hot-button issue. But clerks in the tax office are not, according to Tax Commissioner Susan Smith, trying to "intimidate" citizens into signing the petition as some have suggested.
"There are copies of the petition in our office, but I did not put them there until I talked with my attorney (Jerome Adams of Douglas) and he said he felt it was OK because the issue pertains to this office," Smith said Wednesday. "I have not told any of the clerks in the office -- and as far as I know they aren't doing it -- to ask anyone to sign the petition.
"When anyone comes into this office, it's business first. When (citizens) finish their business, the clerks may mention that the petitions are available. But they do not ask people to sign them. One of the reasons we decided to put them in here was because of the number of questions we were getting about the issue."
Smith forced the commission to take her to Superior Court when she refused to comply with the ordinance, saying she was not elected to collect garbage fees. Judge James Sizemore handed down an Aug. 3 ruling granting a writ of mandamus that would force Smith to comply. Smith has since appealed the ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Lee Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said Wednesday the actions of the tax office staff amounted to a conflict of interest.
"I recognize the right of any citizen who challenges the validity of the ordinance, but recently I have been informed that there is a petition circulating in the county to overturn it," Duffy said. "I have also been informed that this petition is in the tax commissioner's office and that employees in the office are soliciting signatures on county property during county time.
"I believe this is a conflict of interest, since our tax commissioner has refused to implement the ordinance passed by the commission in May of 2009."
Lee County Attorney Jimmy Skipper, a former state Legislator, said at the commission's Tuesday night business meeting that he could find no case in Georgia law that would preclude the tax commissioner's office from having copies of the petition available for citizens to sign.
"I really haven't found anything that addresses that directly," Skipper said. "The closest I came is a law that prohibits government agencies from campaigning specifically for something like SPLOST (special-purpose local-option sales tax)."
Some citizens complained to county officials that the pastors of First Baptist Church Leesburg and Leesburg United Methodist Church had, from the pulpit during Sunday services, urged church members to sign the petition. The pastors of both churches said those claims are not true.
"There was one of our members who asked me to announce that she had a copy of the petition if anyone was interested in signing it," the Rev. Bobby Harrell of First Baptist said Wednesday. "All I did was make the announcement for her at the end of services, after our benediction.
"Despite what anyone might have said, I did not 'preach' about the issue, and I have no intention of doing so."
Leesburg United Methodist pastor the Rev. Mike Lyons said he's disappointed that citizens would make such claims.
"That statement is not accurate at all," Lyons said. "In fact, I'm disappointed to hear this issue has gone so far that something like that would be fabricated."