By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
The ongoing saga over the size of the new Sullivan’s Island Elementary School came to a definite conclusion Monday, June 9, when Judge Dennis delivered his final written order and judgment.
The Judge found for the defendant, the Town of Sullivan’s Island, on all counts.
He denied the plaintiffs Martha Smith, Kathleen Post and William Post’s requests for a declaration that the Town failed to comply with State law, and for awards of costs and attorneys’ fees.
His written ruling clears up any misapprehension that the Town Council acted illegally in any way when refusing to move forward with a petition requesting a referendum on the size and scope of the new elementary school, which will open this August as scheduled.
“The plaintiffs had claimed that the Town acted illegally in not conducting a referendum, they were claiming the Town denied them of their right to vote, right to due process and right to petition,” Trenholm Walker, attorney for the Town, said.
“The court disagreed on all three claims.”
“There was some suggestion that Council had acted illegally by not deferring the petition to the court,” Walker continued. “The judge disagreed categorically on that. Council never took the position that they had final say, they always deferred to the fact that the court would have final say.”
In fact, Council did defer the petition to the court, seeking what is known as a Declaratory Judgment to determine if their actions were correct. That suit was not dismissed until after the plaintiffs brought their suit.
Judge Dennis said this was in keeping with the law, and that the second lawsuit took the place of the first. The court made the final determination on the petition and ruled it was invalid for five separate reasons.
“Because what the petition was asking was something Council could not do it was therefore called facially invalid, so Council had no obligations and did not violate anyone’s right,” Walker said. “What the plaintiffs were saying following the judge’s oral ruling, even though this wasn’t in their lawsuit, was that the court was the final arbitrator, that the court had the ultimate authority to rule on the petition.
But Council never disputed that point.
“When Judge Dennis said ‘I agree with both sides,’ which was a loose remark during his oral ruling, he had thought Council could act on a petition as it saw fit. He then reviewed the case law and realized that he does not defer to Council’s decision, the court has to make his own decision and that’s what he did. I think the other side mistakenly thought he was ruling in their favor in some way. The plaintiffs were trying to argue that the town made a mistake in not following their first lawsuit, but the Judge said it really made no difference whether the decision was rendered in the town’s lawsuits or the plaintiff’s lawsuit; the court would deliver a binding decision.”
Representatives of Islanders for a Smaller School, the group behind the petition signed by the plaintiffs, released this statement on June 16 regarding Judge Dennis’ written ruling. They requested that it be printed in full.
“We are very proud of what we did and what we have accomplished. This case was always about holding our elected officials accountable and giving all citizens a voice in their government. As a result of our efforts, Sullivan’s Island residents are fully engaged in the ongoing effort to protect and preserve our historic, residential community. “
“We were absolutely stunned to read Judge Dennis’ written ruling on the Sullivan’s Island Referendum lawsuit, because it appears to contradict the oral ruling made in court on May 16. That is truly baffling, particularly to those who attended the court proceedings and heard the oral ruling that day. Although we were disappointed with it, we respect Judge Dennis’ authority to make it.”
“We will continue to follow closely what our elected officials are doing, and will continue our efforts to keep all Sullivan’s Island residents fully informed about decisions being made by Town Council and the impact of it all on the entire Sullivan’s Island community.”
To have won the suit as outlined, the plaintiffs would have had to show that some right was violated.
The judge ruled that no rights were violated. There has to be an “actionable wrong” and if there was no right violated then the town didn’t act illegally.
“Basically, what the plaintiffs were saying in the end was; ‘We have a right to be sued personally and a right to lose that lawsuit because we brought a facially invalid petition and the Town must sue us and we must lose for the Town not to have violated our rights,’” Walker said.
In the end, the plaintiffs did lose the lawsuit, the Town was cleared of any illegality and Sullivan’s Island’s brand new, state of the art school will begin educating the children of the island at the start of the next school year.