By Betsy Finklea
Against the legal advice of their attorney, the Latta Town Council voted 5-2 to hold a special election open to all candidates who pick up a copy of the petition from the Latta Town Hall and complete it to run for mayor.
This would allow for new candidates to be placed on the ballot not just the candidates who were eligible to be placed on the ballot at the time of the original election on Tuesday, December 7, 2021.
How Did We Get Here?
In December 2021, the Latta Election found the winner of the election Robbie Coward ineligible because they stated that he was not properly domiciled in the Town of Latta after the election was contested by his opponent, Teresa Mason. The election was overturned. Coward then appealed this decision. Recently after seeking the Dillon County Council District Six seat and successfully winning the primary, Coward withdrew his appeal.
Due to Coward withdrawing his appear, the need for an election occurred. At Thursday’s meeting of the Latta Town Council, the need for a new election was introduced by O.C. “Corky” Lane, Jr., the head of the Latta Election Commission, and explained by Town Attorney Janet Altman Paschal.
Lane said that Coward had withdrawn his appeal and now a special election was required. He said the commission was trying to perform their responsibility to see that a special election is held and for it to be done properly.
He said that Paschal had been studying this matter, and there is no clear cut direction for this type of situation and no state law that addresses it specifically. He said there were some cases related to this somewhat.
Lane said he had talked to the attorney and understood her interpretation and that all that the election commission does is what council tells them to do.
He said they need to get this done because it has been going on a long time and asked that council hear from the attorney.
Election Commission member Tyrone Willis said that they don’t need “a rush job.” He asked why this had to be a special election and who makes that decision.
Lane said according to the law, it had to be a special election. He said as far as cost, it didn’t matter what the cost was because they were going to have to do what they had to do. Willis said if that was the law, then they have to go by the law.
Lane said they have got to understand how to do this and the town council will decide what to do because they don’t want to have it if it is not done properly.
Paschal said she had been researching the matter. She referred to the law regarding this SC 5-15-30 which is the statute on the process for contesting the results of the election.
SC 5-15-30 states in its entirety: “Within forty-eight hours after the closing of the polls, any candidate may contest the result of the election as reported by the managers by filing a written notice of such contest together with a concise statement of the grounds therefor with the Municipal Election Commission. Within forty-eight hours after the filing of such notice, the Municipal Election Commission shall, after due notice to the parties concerned, conduct a hearing on the contest, decide the issues raised, file its report together with all recorded testimony and exhibits with the clerk of court of the county in which the municipality is situated, notify the parties concerned of the decisions made, and when the decision invalidates the election the council shall order a new election as to the parties concerned. Neither the mayor nor any member of council shall be eligible to pass on the issues arising in any contest in which he is a party. HISTORY: 1962 Code Section 47-101; 1975 (59) 692.”
Paschal did not read the entire section out loud, but focused on this portion which applies to the current stage of the process that states “when the decision invalidates the election the council shall order a new election as to the parties concerned.”
She said what does that mean and how do we interpret this language. She broke the portion down.
Paschal said she had talked and consulted with the General Counsel for the S.C. Municipal Association and the General Counsel for the S.C. Election Commission.
First, council calls for the election. She said it is a “special election.” She talked to the Municipal Association counsel for this matter, and he said it should be a special election.
So, she said they know council calls for an election and calls for a special election.
Paschal said that she found two cases that pertain to an election protest like this one, but that there is very little case law on this particular situation. She said they can look at the case law from two other municipalities. She said it must be municipalities because they do this different than counties do.
Paschal said she did here research and then called the General Counsel for the Municipal Association and the Election Commission. Both looked at what she found and did their own research. They got back to her, and they all concur.
One case that is relevant is a S.C. Supreme Court case from 2008 involving Atlantic Beach. The S.C. Supreme Court overturned Judge Michael Baxley on this issue. After the hearing, Baxley ordered a “de novo” election which mean from the beginning, start over and do it from scratch, let people file, etc.
Paschal said the S.C. Supreme Court has clearly said by overturning Judge Baxley in that case that this “is not wat we do.” Paschal said if the council took that route and it was contested that they would be in the same position here again in a year, three years, or even five years from now depending on how long the process backs up in the Supreme Court.
The only other case is a 2004 case which Paschal said touches on the issue. If we don’t have a start from the beginning election, then what do we have? What does the election look like?
She said the right to protest is created by state law, and any time state law is involved, the statute must be strictly followed. She went back to the words from SC 5-15-30 “as to the parties concerned.”
Paschal said we know we don’t start over.
After researching the matter and consulting with the aforementioned attorneys, Paschal said it was her opinion that the original candidates must be on the ballot as it was on the original election date, less the candidate found ineligible. The council calls for the election, and it must be a special election.
Upon a question asked, Paschal said that there is no reason a “write-in” could not occur. If on the original ballot, there could be a write-in and it was allowed then, then it is allowed now. There was the option to write in on the original ballot. Paschal said there was no direct case law, but that in consulting with people who work in these areas, this is what they all concluded.
Councilwoman Lizzie Crawford asked, “Who is telling us Mrs. Mason is the only name on the ballot? Is that the law?”
Paschal responded that the law tells us that council shall order a new election as to the parties concerned.
There was further discusson.
Motion by Councilman
Marcus McGirt and Further Discussion
Councilman Marcus McGirt made a motion to order a new election and open it to all citizens who want their names on the ballot for a vote. This was seconded by Mayor Nancy Brigman, who said though that she thought Mrs. Mason’s name should be on the ballot.
Paschal said that if themotion went forward and passed that she wanted it to be on record that it is against the advice of the city attorney, but noted that it was council’s decision to make.
McGirt said that his only problem with this situation is that he felt that the town attorney had consulted everyone else and never brought this to the council, the governing body, and that she never talked to any of them or came to them. He said he thought they should have gone into executive session for her to talk with them.
Paschal said there was no way for her to communicate with everyone and she had given everything to the Town Administrator Melinda Robinson to disseminate. She said she sent information to Robinson about a week and a half ago and a summary earlier that week.
Paschal said the opinion given was her opinion based on the review of the law.
Councilman Robert McIntyre asked if there was no law specifically on this, then they could be setting a precedent and opening themselves up for a lawsuit. Paschal said not if they use the 2008 case and don’t have new people file.
Paschal said that the Town of Latta could be the one taking this up, and it could cost the town five to six years and $40,000-$50,000.
Mandy Grice, a member of the Election Commission, suggested that if they don’t know how they feel about the attorney’s opinion then why didn’t they consult another attorney for this particular matter and see how they feel.
Paschal said they could do that, but that attorney find the same case law and that is why she consulted with attorneys from the Municipal Association and Election Commission who work in this area. Paschal explained that when attorneys review the laws and review cases that they give their opinions. She told the council that they could totally ignore her opinion and that it was their decision to make. She said judges and legislators make laws, not attorneys.
McGirt said he felt it was a disservice to the citizens to put one person on the ballot.
Councilman Joe Williamson said if the council orders the election with the parties concerned then obviously Teresa Mason would be on the ballot. He asked if it was a special election that involved the original people on the ballot and write-in was an option then what is the difference in that and opening it up to all to file.
Paschal said they would not run the risk of going to the Supreme Court.
There was further discussion.
There was then a motion to table by McGirt which was seconded.
There was further discussion.
McIntyre said he thought that this matter was on the agenda for information, and he didn’t realize they were taking a vote.
There was further discussion.
Ultimately, the council voted 5-2 to hold a special election open to all candidates who pick up a copy of the petition from the Latta Town Hall and complete it to run for mayor.
The motion was made by Councilman Marcus McGirt and was seconded by Councilwoman Lizzie Crawford. Voting in favor of the motion were McGirt, Crawford, Brigman, Robinson, and Abbott Shelley. Voting against the motion were Williamson and McIntyre.
Watch the Meeting
This meeting can be viewed on the Dillon County Republican Party’s page on Facebook® and has been shared to The Dillon Herald’s page on Facebook®.