Bellevue opposition aims for withdrawal of petition for incorporationBy BUSTER WOLFE,
The validity of current signatures on a petition requesting Bellevue incorporation may become a legal question because both sides disagree whether those petitions can be reused in another attempt.
The attorney representing Lamar County residents who want to set up the City of Bellevue filed a motion to dismiss the current effort in the William J. “Pete” Gamble III Chancery Courthouse last Friday. J. Chadwick Mask also said Tuesday morning that “all signatures collected will count.”
However, Betty Arnold, who is the chairwoman of a group fighting Bellevue incorporation, said the current petition cannot be recycled.
“(Proposed Bellevue Mayor John) Adcock is publicly stating they are just going to ‘get a few more signatures. Just to be safe,’” she said. “This is not allowed under the provisions of withdrawing a petition. When a petition is withdrawn, it is null and void. They have to begin the process again. The original signatures filed are no longer valid and can't be added to. They could have asked to amend the petition and possibly been allowed to do this. They haven't asked for an amendment, but for a withdrawal.”
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 number needed for incorporation.
Arnold said Purvis attorney William Ducker, who is representing her group of Lamar County residents against incorporation, is working to block any new proceedings.
“(The motion to dismiss) is more than a bump in the road,” she said. “While they can refile at some future date, we are filing a motion to dismiss the withdrawal with prejudice, which will preclude them from filing for a set period of time. We are asking for three years.”
In a prepared statement, Adcock said the petition would be refiled “in the near future.”
“Last Friday, the Bellevue Incorporators filed a Motion in Lamar County Chancery Court to withdraw their Incorporation Petitions and to voluntarily dismiss the case temporarily,” he said. “This action is taken to allow an opportunity to obtain a minimal amount of additional signatures and refile the Petition to Incorporate in the near future.”
Arnold said the entire process boiled down to the number of valid signatures on the petitions to incorporate.
“As part of the discovery process we had to turn our work over to them,” she said. “That was around four weeks ago. I can't help but think that when they saw our meticulous work, they knew they didn't have a chance.”
Adcock addressed the issue of adequate numbers of signatures, saying determining qualified voters is difficult.’
“The process of determining how many qualified electors live within a jurisdictional area that is not yet distinguished by any government record is extremely difficult,” he said. “The Bellevue Incorporators have worked many diligent hours and spent substantial amounts of private dollars to complete these calculations. Currently, the total tally of signatures collected is within a reasonable margin of error of the mandatory minimum. The Bellevue Incorporators are privately funded and while there is a possibility that the minimum requisite has already been met, the Petitioners have decided that, out of an abundance of caution, the best course of action is to voluntarily withdraw their Petitions, obtain additional signatures, and re-file their Petition to Incorporate.
“Simply put, the incorporation of the new City of Bellevue is far too important an endeavor to continue without undeniable certainty. This process requires a large amount of private funds, and as stewards of those funds, it has been determined that the best path forward is to withdraw and refile once the threshold has been undeniably ascertained.”
Because of the number of residents who have favored incorporation, Adcock said he and the proposed Aldermen of Bellevue have decided to dismiss the petition.
“(W)e are going to obtain additional signatures, re-file the Petition to Incorporate the City of Bellevue, and make this effort a reality,” he said.
An earlier court appearance Dec. 11 in Purvis was canceled after only Ducker showed up.
Senior Status Judge Michael H. Ward of Gulfport had set a schedule on Sept. 25 for further legal proceedings, beginning with a status hearing Dec. 11. However, Ducker said he was unsure why no one else appeared.
May 7, 2018, as the first date to investigate petition signatures for the incorporation by Bellevue officials. 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 would have been verified.