By Terri Ferguson Smith / email@example.com
The Meridian Star
Petitions calling for a county-wide vote on a proposed $14 million bond issue prompted county officials to delay going forward with the projects on Monday.
The Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors has proposed the bond issue for city and county recreation projects as well as courthouse renovations, but some people want voters to be allowed to weigh in on the matter at the ballot box.
If the petition drive succeeded in getting at least 1,500 signatures of registered voters in the county, the bond issue will be decided by a referendum.
Upon the recommendation of Rick Barry, attorney to the Board of Supervisors, the board unanimously passed a motion to accept the signatures. Then Barry recommended that the board approve a motion to hold the petitions for two weeks so the signatures could be made public at the Chancery Clerk's Office and online on the county's website.
That resulted in a split vote, with supervisors Hank Florey, Josh Todd, and Joe Norwood voting in favor; and supervisors Wayman Newell and Kyle Rutledge voting against the motion.
That was the same split as early last month when the board took the first steps toward passing the bond issue, with Newell and Rutledge voting against passing the bond issue.
Barry said the two week holding period is to allow anyone who doesn't want their name on the petition to remove it.
"I discussed with the president of the board last week to add to that motion that it would include that the petition and all the signatures that are on it, copied and made available to the public at the Chancery Clerk's Office and the county website for the next two weeks so the public can examine the petition and determine if in fact the people's names that are on the petition are signed or if they want their name on the petition," Barry said. "Then after the two weeks, the petition would be given to the circuit clerk to determine the number of registered voters on the petition."
Newell questioned Barry about the two-week period, saying he had never heard of that. Barry acknowledged that he had only learned of it himself last week, in speaking with the county's bond counsel.
The process by which the petition moves forward, Barry explained, is that after being counted at the Chancery Clerk's Office, the signatures will be posted for two weeks, giving signers an opportunity to remove their names. Then the petition will then be presented the Circuit Clerk's Office for verification of signatures.
"As I understand some of these petitions were left in stores and other places," Barry said. "If somebody sees their name on the petition and they didn't sign it, they need to advise the board. Or if they don't want their name on the petition."
Florey said he has heard indirectly that some people want their names removed from the petition.
"Nobody has told me personally, but I've had people tell me that some people have signed it and want their name off of it," Florey said. "If there are 1,500 names on there that are qualified voters, if they want an election we'll have an election. That's the law. That's what I want. I want to be fair to everybody, both sides."
Newell said he had never heard of the two week waiting period.
"I don't know what the deal is with the two weeks," Newell said. "I've got some concerns about it because the procedure, as I've been told; the chancery clerk is supposed to get the petitions, she presents the petitions to the board and in turn the board presents them to the circuit clerk to verify the names. It doesn't say anything about holding it two weeks."
Newell said he is concerned that someone might attempt to use the two-week period to influence people who signed the petition to change their minds.
"It just doesn't smell right and hadn't anybody ever done it before, why should we do it now? And yet it had three votes," Newell said.
Norwood said he hoped there were not 1,500 signatures on the petitions because he wants to move forward with the projects.
The bond issue proposes to spend $3.8 million to build a 32,000 square foot sports complex that will house a four-court gymnasium with bleachers at Highland Park. Also, $3.5 million of the bonds will go to the county-owned fields of the West Lauderdale Youth Association; $2.5 million will go to the county-owned Clarkdale Community Recreation Association park construction, and the remainder, $4.2 million, will go to fund the first step in the renovation of the the county courthouse.
Van Goodman is among those who have been circulating the petition. In many cases, he said he had to start by telling voters that there was a proposed bond issue and what it was for.
"I said, 'If you support what's going on you do not need to sign this. If you do support it to have the bond rejected as it is and bring it to a county-wide vote, would you be interested in signing it?'" Goodman said.
Goodman said only one person he discussed it with did not want to sign the petition and that person didn't actually disagree with what he was saying but simply wanted to support the county recreational projects.
He reiterated that peoples' opposition to the bond issue was prompted by various reasons.
Goodman said he wasn't aware of anyone who had misrepresented the issue to people who signed the petition.
"I think the people who put their name on this petition are smart enough to realize what's at stake here," Goodman said.
As to the number of signatures they have amassed, Goodman said they had between 1,350 and 1,400 signatures on Sunday, but more signatures came in later Sunday and still more were brought in early Monday prior to the Board of Supervisors meeting.
"I'm going to say we had in excess of 1,500, just how many I'm not sure," he said.
Raymond Huffmaster said he too had never heard of the two week waiting period.
"If somebody wants their name taken off of it because they didn't sign it, that's alright," Huffmaster said. "If they did sign it, that's not alright."
Barry said those who signed the petition can take their name off until it's turned over to the circuit clerk's office.
There will be a form available at the chancery clerk's office that they can sign if they want their name taken off, Barry said.