Petition protest: Group to challenge BOC policy

Petition protest: Group to challenge BOC policy
[By Sharon Hall. Originally published in The Dahlonega Nugget Wednesday, September 30, 2009]

Lumpkin County Homeowners Association members plan to put the county’s new rules concerning petitions to the test at the next regular meeting of the board of commissioners Wednesday, Oct. 14. They voted last week to present a petition that does not conform to the new rules, opposing the harvesting of hardwood trees from the Blackburn Park property.

The board voted to approve a petition form in July. The form includes an “Affidavit of Circulator” that states, “Under the penalty of law relating to false swearing, punishable by a fine not to exceed $1,000 or by imprisonment of not less that five years, or both,” that the person circulating the petition believes that “each signer’s name and residence are correctly stated … is a citizen of Lumpkin County, and … has read, or was read” the stated purpose of the petition. The form also requires that the petition be notarized.

There are about 1,000 signatures attached to the Blackburn Park petition, said LCHA President Emily Lewy, who admits that the petition was “loosely done, and mostly done by others. I collected signatures one day at the Auraria Yard Sale.” But the petition is complete with addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses, she says. However, there are no affidavits and no notary stamp.

“The first amendment guarantees the unalienable right to petition the government. There’s even a quote from Supreme Court justices that the right is ‘so well established few have dared to challenge it in recent years,’” Lewy told those attending last week’s LCHA meeting. “The fact that this right has been questioned by our commissioners is outrageous. And most outrageous is the statement about fines and imprisonment. If you are collecting signatures on the county’s form, you would have to see a picture ID. We must never follow this form. If we do, and we sign it, we could be prosecuted.”

District 2 Commissioner Tim Bowden was present at the meeting. He said the intent of the petition resolution “was to make sure the signatures weren’t someone’s out of Cobb County. I don’t see anything wrong with being sure they are Lumpkin County voters who have an interest in issues in Lumpkin County.”

The state of Georgia also requires that a petition to get on the ballot be notarized, but there is no mention of imprisonment or fines. The only penalty is that the signatures of ineligible or unregistered voters are not counted.

“The Blackburn Park petition is different from a petition to run for public office. It’s an administrative requirement of the Secretary of State. But the kind of petition we circulated would be appropriate if we only took a roll of toilet paper and signed it,” Lewy said. “The big problem is the notary requirement for collectors. It is onerous, and would be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court if it ever got that far.”

“It looks like, to a number of people, that the board of commissioners is trying to silence the people,” said LCHA association member John Cavender.

“And that’s the effect,” Lewy added. “A lot of people won’t want to sign a petition.”

“This was only dreamed up after you knew the petition for Blackburn Park was coming,” Cavender told Bowden.

Juvenile court judge David Turk, who was at the meeting to make a presentation on Family Drug Court, was asked for a legal opinion. He said the fine and imprisonment language comes from the ‘false swearing’ statute. “This, in my opinion, would not pass constitutional muster. Plus, it has a ‘chilling effect’-that’s the legal term for it-on those wishing to sign or circulate a petition.”

Gerald Lewy said the rule is having “just that effect. People at the Grumpy Old Men’s Club don’t want to sign anything. Perception is reality.”

Bowden pointed out that the requirement is on the collector, not the signer. Even so, Lewy said, the county’s form goes too far with its threat of fines and jail time.

“Even on a petition for the ballot there are no legal sanctions,” she said. “There’s no requirement for you [the commissioners] to even read a petition. You can say ‘thank you, ma’am, and dump it in the garbage. But the people have a right to petition the government. The real power of a petition is that it informs the people about an issue. You can’t just walk up to a stranger and start talking. But with that petition in your hand you can walk up to someone and ask for their signature and talk to them about an issue.” When Lewy went to Auraria to collect signatures, she said, she was “amazed at the number of people who had an interest in Blackburn Park, and knew nothing about the county’s plans to clear cut.”

Bowden told the audience that there are no plans at present to do any logging at the location. He also suggested that because the Blackburn Park petition was started before the resolution, it could be “grandfathered in.”

While LCHA’s members were pleased to hear there will be no logging, Lewy said the “issue now is whether they will accept the petition or not. I’m upset that Tim Bowden would suggest the petition could be grandfathered in. Getting this petition accepted is not the point. The point is, the people have the absolute right to petition.”

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