BLYTHEWOOD, S.C. In California, signing a petition might get you a new governor. In Blythewood, signing one might get you hauled into court.
More than a quarter of the 247 residents in this town outside Columbia recently received an 80-page document summoning them to court and telling them they would have to pay attorney costs because they signed petitions asking the town council to adopt new ordinances.
“Immediately I thought they were trying to intimidate whoever signed that so they wouldn’t dare to anything like that again, they wouldn’t dare challenge the council again,” said Wade Dorsey, 39, who, along with his wife, Sheila, received a copy of the document. “I think it says to citizens if you try to rock the boat, we’ll make it difficult for you.”
But town attorney Ted von Keller says the town had no other option than to ask a judge to decide whether the proposed ordinances would be legal. Passing the ordinances outright or letting residents vote could have left the town with illegal ordinances on the books, von Keller said.
So rather than allowing residents to vote on ordinances that might leave the town open to a costly lawsuit down the road, council members and the mayor voted unanimously on von Keller’s advice to ask a judge to determine whether they were legal, council members said.
“We’re finding out what is legal or illegal,” said Councilwoman Carolyn Lomas, who insists the town is not suing its residents. “I’m not going to vote on something if there is a question about the legality of it.”
Legal experts and the 60 residents named in the complaint see it differently.
The action raises concerns about citizens’ rights to petition the government, said Jay Bender, a Columbia attorney who practices First Amendment law.
“The difficulty is when any government entity gets proactive about suing its residents it seems like an effort to punish the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed rights,” Bender said.
The town is within its rights to ask a judge to rule on the ordinances, said University of South Carolina government professor Charlie Tyer. But council members could have just as easily asked the town lawyer to write an opinion stating that the ordinances were not valid under state law, Tyer said. Then, the option to sue would have rested with residents, not the town.
Under South Carolina municipal law, residents are allowed to ask their local government to give them a chance to vote on ordinances proposed by petition. But South Carolina residents rarely lead drives to create town ordinances because there aren’t many topics about which they can legally introduce ordinances, Tyer said.
State law prohibits residents from introducing laws about taxing and spending, and the state Supreme Court has ruled against resident-proposed zoning laws.
Blythewood petitioners were seeking three ordinances: one to impose certain licensing fees on businesses that made more than $1 million in gross income; one to impose impact fees on businesses; and one requiring town-planning commissioners to live in the city limits.
Von Keller says imposing a licensing fee amounted to a tax.
The other resident-proposed ordinances cannot be placed on referendum because residents can’t vote on administrative matters, von Keller said. They’re also out of keeping with state guidelines about impact fee regulations and the makeup of town-planning commission, von Keller said.
Since the complaint was filed last month, town council members have voted not to charge residents the attorney costs associated with seeking a judge’s ruling. The complaint initially included language seeking “the costs of this action” as a matter of legal routine but the town never really wanted to be repaid, von Keller said.
The move is the latest in a two-year tug of war between officials and several residents over development, architecture and annexations in this quickly growing community about 18 miles northeast of Columbia.
“We had a small town, but it is experiencing pretty serious growing pains,” said Dorsey, who moved here from Columbia three years ago to return to the home of his ancestors and to escape daily traffic battles and the growth of industry.
He and other worried residents are keeping a close eye on town government, regularly showing up at council meetings to protest zoning proposals with the potential to change largely residential areas into industrial ones.
At one recent meeting, residents wore green T-shirts bearing the slogans: “Save Blythewood” and “Rural but Educated.” Many grumbled loudly; some snorted at comments from council members and the mayor.
“It’s been very acrimonious, extremely,” Dorsey said.
Neither Tyer nor Bender could recall an example of a town suing its residents after they petitioned for ordinances.
“I suppose they could go to a court and ask,” Tyer said. “It seems a little out of the ordinary and more expensive. It sounds like to me they’ve got a little squabble going on here.”