LEESBURG -- There will no doubt be further wrangling over the issue of including nonbinding questions about the now-repealed Lee County garbage fee ordinance on July 31 primary ballots, but attempts to force a special recall vote ended Monday when Lee Probate Court Judge John Wheaton ruled the issue moot.
Indicating a group, led by, among others, Lee Republican Party Chairman Mike Sabot, Wheaton said that while the group had met constitutional requirements by collecting more than the required number of signatures that might lead to a special recall election, action taken by the Lee County Commission on March 27 rendered the recall effort moot.
In his ruling, Wheaton wrote, "The court has determined that the petition (collected to force the recall vote) on its face meets the requisite number of voters; however, as of Tuesday, March 27, 2012, the Lee County Board of Commissioners repealed the portion of the Solid Waste Ordinance that required the garbage fees to be placed on the yearly tax bill which had been enacted effective July 1, 2009. As such, the issue in the otherwise valid Petition has been rendered moot by the repeal by the Board of Commissioners."
Wheaton added: "It is no longer necessary for this court to call for a special election for the purpose of submitting the Repeal Question to the registered voters of Lee County, Georgia, for their approval or rejection pursuant to the Petition of Repeal."
Notified by The Albany Herald of Wheaton's ruling, Sabot called it a victory for the group that had collected, according to Wheaton, 3,749 valid signatures, and for the community at large.
"The whole purpose of this effort was to remove legislation that the community did not want," Sabot said Wednesday morning. "The voice of the people was heard, and it was heard loud and clear.
"This issue was little more than a game of politics, clear and simple."
County Administrator Tony Massey said the ruling made by Wheaton is what County Attorney Jimmy Skipper had suggested since the commission voted to repeal the ordinance that would have placed garbage fees on ad valorem tax bills.
"First of all, I think I can speak on behalf of the County Commission and say that we're certainly happy with the decision Judge Wheaton made," Massey said. "It is consistent with the legal advice that's been given by our county attorney, and with that, now we can move forward."
Massey said the county had been waiting for a ruling from Wheaton before putting a garbage collection plan in place that will utilize elements of the ordinance passed by the commission to replace the one it repealed. The new ordinance allows the county to remove garbage receptacles of customers whose bills are 60 days or more past due, a number that currently surpasses 600, according to officials with county Utilities Services.
"We wanted to use Judge Wheaton's ruling as guidance when moving forward," Massey said. "We'll meet and come up with a game plan to try and improve collections. I will say, though, that with all the attention this issue has gotten, we have seen collections improve."
The Supreme Court has been asked to make a ruling on Lee Tax Commissioner Susan Smith's appeal of a Superior Court ruling that she enact the now-repealed ordinance. Both Smith and Skipper filed briefs asking the high court to move forward with the ruling because it impacts the entire state.
Sabot, meanwhile, said the Republican and Democratic parties have been asked to not include planned nonbinding questions on the July 31 primary ballots. The commission had indicated it might reinstate the ordinance if the majority of voters said it wanted the garbage fees added to tax bills.
"I've been asked to reconsider our plan to include the question," Sabot said. "That's an issue I will bring to our executive committee at our April meeting. I plan to recuse myself because of my involvement in (the recall effort).
"We also plan to coordinate our efforts (on reconsidering the nonbinding questions) with the Democratic Party because this affects all citizens of the county."