Bellevue adds May 2018 to calendarBy BUSTER WOLFE,
Senior Status Judge Michael H. Ward of Gulfport set May 7, 2018, as the first date to investigate petition signatures for the incorporation by Bellevue officials during the first court action involving all parties earlier this week at the William M. “Pete” Gamble III Chancery Courthouse in Purvis.
After coordinating calendars with the attorneys representing Bellevue, Hattiesburg and citizens who oppose the incorporation, Ward set the weeks of May 7 and 14 for the jurisdictional procedure in the case. During these two weeks, the signatures on the petition for Bellevue incorporation will be verified by Lamar County Circuit Clerk Martin Hankins’ office.
Lamar County residents who are opposing the incorporation of Bellevue claim that the petition for incorporation is about 1,000 signatures short of the number required by law to complete the process. The petition for incorporating a town – which was presented to the Lamar County Chancery Clerk’s Office on May 19 – must have signatures of at least two thirds of the qualified electors in the area.
According to examination by the citizens group, the 4,118-page petition contains 2,184 signatures, about 300 short of the required number. With another 600 signatures that appeared to be invalid, the petition appears to fall between 900 and 1,000 signatures short of the required number.
The second phase of the case – if the jurisdictional phase shows that Ward can rule on the petition – will be the presentation of expert witnesses.
Attorneys who are involved in the case are included those who are directing the Bellevue incorporation efforts – Chad Mask of Jackson and Ben Snow of Hattiesburg – William Ducker of Purvis, who is representing residents who oppose the incorporation, and Jerry Mills, who was hired by the City of Hattiesburg to oppose the incorporation because of the Hub City’s annexation efforts into the area.
Other dates agreed to by Ward and the attorneys are a Dec. 11 status conference in Purvis, an April 18, 2018, pretrial hearing in Purvis to exchange exhibits; and a May 2, 2018, pretrial conference in Hattiesburg.
Liz Strickland, a member of Citizens against the Proposed City of Bellevue who is checking the signatures, said earlier the total number of signatures is short.
“We believe that we have 3,700 eligible voters in the proposed Bellevue area,” she said. “Of that, the two-thirds requirement means they must have 2,500 signatures. The actual number of signatures on the document is 2,184 signatures. So at that point, they are 300 signatures approximately short. There are also a significant number of duplicate signatures.”
John Adcock, the proposed mayor of Bellevue, responded to the report of insufficient signatures on the petition on Twitter, dismissing the opposition group’s claims.
“The very small group of objectors to Bellevue are alleging that there are a number of ‘irregularities’ with the signatures on the petition for incorporation and that we don't have the required two thirds,” he said. “They have no idea what they're talking about. This is nothing more than an effort to stir up a frenzy among people and try to raise money for their dwindling cause. We are EXTREMELY confident that we have more than the necessary number of signatures necessary! It's time to move on! #im4bellevue”
After the scheduling hearing Monday morning, Adcock said, “What we learned today is that it is going to take a long time.”
State Supreme Court Chief Justice William L. Waller Jr. appointed Ward to hear the incorporation after 10th District Chancellor M. Ronald Doleac recused himself.
Three Chancery Court judges – Rhea H. Sheldon, Deborah J. Gambrell and Johnny L. Williams – had recused themselves from the Belleville incorporation case in a June 16 order.
Doleac was assigned to the case, but Ducker filed a motion June 23 for Doleac to be recused because relatives allegedly lived in the proposed Bellevue area.
Doleac filed an order of disqualification and recusal June 27 and the Mississippi Supreme Court Docket Manager was advised of the action that same day. Waller appointed Ward on June 29.