County files legal challenge to police referendum
By TAYLOR COOPER
The Glynn County Commission filed a lawsuit late Friday alleging a new state law allowing the electorate to vote on abolishing the Glynn County Police Department is unconstitutional.
In the lawsuit, the county is asking Superior Court to declare the referendum unconstitutional and to grant injunctions preventing the referendum from being placed on the Nov. 3 general election ballot and the board of elections and secretary of state from preparing for a separate special election in Glynn County until a ruling is reached.
All five Brunswick Judicial Circuit judges recused themselves. The case will now be assigned to a judge from another judicial circuit.
Defendants named in the lawsuit are Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, the Glynn County Board of Elections and each individual member of the board. The five-member board is made up of Democratic party appointees Patricia Gibson and Keith Rustin, Republican party appointees Patricia Featherstone and Sandy Dean and county commission appointee Tommy Clark.
“This lawsuit is aimed at challenging Senate bills 38 and 509, which are patently unconstitutional,” according to the court filing. “This lawsuit does not seek to litigate any question related to the merits of abolishing the Glynn County Police Department, or the reasons that motivated the passage and enactment of these bills. This lawsuit also does not seek to question the ability of the current (Glynn County) Sheriff to provide law enforcement services.”
The Georgia General Assembly passed the bills in June.
S.B. 38 allows the state to place a referendum on the ballot asking voters whether they want to abolish the county police department and grants the authority to enact the voters’ decision; S.B. 509 contains the wording of the referendum on the GCPD to be placed on the general election ballot.
County commissioners have argued that the bill violates state rules since it was first introduced in 2019 and were not shy about their intentions to legally challenge the legislation. State Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, also opposed the bills.
State Sen. William Ligon, R-White Oak, and Rep. Don Hogan, R-St. Simons Island, supported the bills in the Georgia Senate and House of Representatives. They claimed the action was necessary because the county commission had failed to show a commitment to addressing apparent corruption and malfeasance in the police department as evidenced by the department’s handling of the Feb. 23 shooting of Ahmaud Arbery and a scandal that led to the dissolution of the Glynn Brunswick Narcotics Enforcement Team.
In its initial filing, the county made multiple cases against the referendum, the first of which was that the bill came too late to be included on the ballot.
The argument relies on the referendum question meeting the criteria of a special election, which is defined in state law as “an election that arises from some exigency or special need outside the usual routine.”
Glynn County’s Board of Elections initially believed the referendum would have to be classified as a special election based on state law and case law. According to state law, a special election question can be included on a general or primary election ballot but only if the special election is called 90 days in advance. S.B. 509 missed the 90-day window, the county’s filing states.
After the 90-day window had closed, board members voted to hold the referendum separate but parallel to the general election. That would require less advance notice but an equal number of polling places, machines and workers.
The board eventually walked back the special election decision at the urging of the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.
The county also objected to a separate election. Doing it separately would have created “insurmountable obstacles” for the elections office and cost as much as $500,000 to buy the necessary equipment, attorneys representing the county claim.
The county opposes two elections. It contends the referendum is a special election and is asking the court to require the board of elections to treat it as one if it passes constitutional muster. It also requests the court bar the board of elections and the secretary of state from preparing for a separate special election in Glynn County.
Ryan Germany, legal counsel for the Georgia Secretary of State, wrote in a letter to the board stating that the referendum doesn’t meet the qualifications to be considered a special election and should be included on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.
In its other argument against the referendum, the county makes the case that by passing S.B. 38, the state legislature is attempting to revoke the county’s authority to provide policing services and target Glynn County specifically with the legislation, both violations of the Georgia Constitution.
Powers given to counties by the state Constitution can be regulated by general law, which applies to all counties, but not by local law, which only applies to specific geographic areas of jurisdictions.
S.B. 38 is by admission targeted specifically at Glynn County, a claim the county’s attorneys support by quoting in the lawsuit state representatives and Sen. Ligon during a House hearing on S.B. 38. While the bill takes the form of a general law, it is in essence a “local act aimed solely at Glynn County and passed only in an effort to defund and abolish the Glynn County Police Department,” the filing states.
In addition, S.B. 38 allows police abolishment referendums to be placed on the ballot via local legislation.
The county’s filing also included a February letter from the General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Counsel to Rep. Jones, in which Deputy Legislative Counsel H. Jeff Lanier suggests a good argument could be made that S.B. 38 is unconstitutional on those grounds.
Ligon and Hogan told The News in past interviews that the legislation was meant exclusively to address issues in Glynn County.
Such local legislation directly targeting an individual county’s constitutional authority is barred by law, the county claims.
The county’s attorneys reference several more alleged violations of state law in the lawsuit. By requiring the county to transfer GCPD assets to the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office, the state would violate laws giving counties control of their own assets and structures and requiring any transfers of county property to a sheriff be approved by the county’s governing authority.