LEESBURG -- Lee County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy issued a statement Tuesday that definitively breaks the impasse of the battle over garbage fee collection in the county.
Duffy said that even if the Georgia Supreme Court has not ruled on Tax Commissioner Susan Smith's appeal of a Lee Superior Court ruling compelling her to enforce the ordinance by the commission's next work session, the board will repeal the controversial measure.
"If the Supreme Court does not rule by our next work session, which will be April 10, the board will take action to initiate repealing the garbage ordinance," Duffy said.
That action, if taken by the board, would render a petition calling for a recall vote of the ordinance that would put garbage fees on ad valorem tax bills all but moot, according to County Attorney Jimmy Skipper.
"I haven't actually seen the petition, but I would think whether it is allowed by the court or not, if commissioners follow through on their plan to repeal the ordinance -- and I don't know why they wouldn't -- I would suspect that putting the (recall) petition on the ballot would be a moot question," Skipper said.
"Once the ordinance has been repealed, it wouldn't matter what the court might rule," he said. "There would be no ordinance to repeal."
Still, one of the leaders of a group that collected signatures on a petition calling for a special election to repeal the garbage fee ordinance said his group planned to continue its fight. Mike Sabot, the recently elected chairman of the Lee County Republican party, said his organization delivered copies of the petition with more than 5,000 signatures to Probate Court Judge John Wheaton on Monday morning.
The Georgia Constitution allows for repeal petitions of specific laws or ordinances when 20 percent of a (midsize) county's registered voters sign a petition in support of a special recall election and the petitions are certified by a probate judge.
"Judge Wheaton told us he's going to make a decision on this quickly," Sabot said. "And it really doesn't matter what the county does or what it plans to do. If Judge Wheaton accepts the signatures on the petition, there will be a recall election.
"We wouldn't have moved forward with our efforts if the commission had gone ahead and repealed the ordinance, but the statement (Duffy) made at (last week's) commission meeting was too confusing. We've got more than 5,000 signatures, and 3,801 of them are registered voters. We made sure we had more than the number needed (3,477)."
Wheaton, meanwhile, said he wouldn't need the 60 days he has to make a ruling on the legality of the petition.
"The first thing we'll do is verify the signatures," he said. "Once that's done, I plan to move quickly from there. I've been looking into this matter since it first came up, but I'll go back and look at the code section and other court cases before making a final decision.
"I expect to make a ruling well before the 60 days are up."
Duffy said Tuesday he wants to make the commission's intent "perfectly clear" in reference to the garbage fee ordinance, which was passed as a means of halting the growing problem of uncollected garbage fees that officials say has surpassed $8 million.
"As everyone is aware, we are waiting for the Georgia Supreme Court decision regarding having the garbage fees on the ad valorem tax rolls," the commission chairman said. "The board took this action to address a longstanding collection problem, which has existed in Lee County since 1994.
"There is a small group in the county which does not want the garbage fees on the ad valorem tax rolls. This group has initiated a petition against the garbage fee ordinance. We still believe a majority of the citizens in Lee County support the Board of Commissioners' actions (of) having every citizen in the county equally paying their trash bill for services rendered.
"With that being said," Duffy continued, "the board also respects the will of the citizens. Therefore, I would like to suggest that after the Supreme Court makes its decision, that the board will repeal the garbage ordinance."
Duffy said Tuesday there is no timeline for the issue to go before the high court, so the board will take action regardless.
"If the Supreme Court does not rule by our next work session, which will be April 10, the board will take action to initiate repealing the garbage ordinance," he said. "Once the Board of Commissioners repeals the ordinance, the petition becomes a moot point; in other words, the petition effort becomes irrelevant.
"We then will abide by whatever the results are with the upcoming nonbinding referendum in July. If a majority favors putting the garbage bills on the ad valorem tax rolls, we will reinstate the ordinance. If a majority does not, the board will explore other options."
Commissioner Bill Williams, whose District 5 seat is up for re-election on July 31, said the board wants to show its respect for the "will" of its citizens.
"The board still feels we made the right decision in placing the garbage fees on the tax bill," he said. "This is the most cost-efficient and effective way of collecting the delinquent garbage fees due the county.
"However, we respect the will of the people and are willing to abide by the results of the nonbinding referendum."