By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
It seems like the perfect outcome. Both sides in the ongoing dispute over the building of Sullivan’s Island Elementary school left the Charleston County Courthouse Friday clutching feelings of victory.
“We are very happy with today’s ruling,” said Sullivan’s Island resident Karen Coste, a representative of Islanders for a Smaller School, said. “While we will not get the chance to vote, at least we heard a judge tell our elected officials that what they did was illegal. We hope other towns will not try what our town council did.”
“We welcome the court’s decision that Sullivan’s Island Town Council acted correctly and lawfully in response to the Petition for Initiative and Referendum on the Sullivan’s Island Elementary School,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Kaynard on behalf of the Town of Sullivan’s Island.
“Huh?” said the rest of the island.
It appears that both sides took away different interpretations of the oral rulings handed down by Judge Dennis on Friday, May 16. Both agree the judge ruled the Town did not deprive the plaintiffs of their constitutional rights to vote, and that he declared the petition the citizens presented the Town Council in 2011 was legally invalid – the two main complaints in the lawsuit. But they disagree on whether the judge ruled the Town acted illegally in declaring the petition invalid.
Before we descend too far into legal jargon, the crux of the matter is this. Islanders for a Smaller School presented Town Council with a petition in 2011 seeking a referendum to require the new school be no larger than the existing one and that the new school be submitted for review by the Town’s Design Review Board.
The Town Council, after seeking legal advice, declared that such an ordinance was outside their powers and proceeded to seek a declaratory judgment in support of its decision from the courts. That lawsuit was never filed however, due to the city’s inability to identify a defendant.
Under South Carolina State Law, when citizens present their government with a petition it must do one of the following: 1. Work with the petitioners to craft a mutually-agreed petition 2. Hold a referendum 3. Take the issue before a judge.
Islanders for a Smaller School say Judge Dennis ruled in their favor on this point and that the Town acted illegally by violating the plaintiffs’ right by neither adopting their ordinance or conducting a referendum on it.
“We are awaiting a detailed written order from the judge with the basis for his ruling,” Rutledge Young III, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an interview with Island Eye News. “But the voters prevailed on their request to have the judge state whether the Town Council lacked the authority to do what they did.”
Trenholm Walker, the lawyer representing the town, said in an email to Island Eye News: “The judge said that the ultimate question of legal validity is for the courts, not council. The Town never disputed the court has the final say. The judge found nothing wrong with the way the town approached things. It brought a lawsuit to determine the validity of the initiated ordinance and dismissed it months after plaintiffs brought this case. The judge said there was no reason for the town to serve and prosecute the earlier case. The plaintiffs’ lawsuit did basically the same thing—test the legal validity of the initiated ordinance.”
The Judge’s written ruling, which will clarify matters, has not been published yet. Traditionally, a draft of the order is prepared by the side that won the case. Walker said Judge Dennis has directed him to prepare an order entering judgment in favor of the Town.
No matter what the final written order says, or how it is phrased, what will not change are the results of the Judge’s rulings. There will not be a referendum on the size and design of the school, as the petition originally requested, because the Judge ruled that the petition was defective. In August, as scheduled, the children of Sullivan’s Island will enter their brand new 72,000 square foot school on the beachfront.
“No one ‘won,’” Mayor Mike Perkis, who was unable to attend the trial, said “It’s black and white. It’s the facts. We believe we got out of it what we wanted. Now, how do we move forward.”
“Town Council welcomes the input and suggestions of all of its residents, including all residents who signed the Petition,” Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Kaynard said. “We are a small community and we are all neighbors. Our government works better when all residents participate. Town Council wants to encourage the continuing involvement by all our residents, especially those who signed the Petition for a Referendum. Hopefully, that will make Town Council a more effective government. Residents’ suggestions are important and essential in preserving and improving our quality of life on this special island.”