The South Carolina Supreme Court is accusing a Grand Strand town of ignoring the will of the voters by its “obstruction,” and ordered two candidates to immediately take their place on the town’s council.
The case deals with an election two years ago for the Atlantic Beach Town Council. In August 2009, two women– Carolyn Cole and Windy Price– moved into an apartment building partially owned by Cole so they could run for the council. Although the property had been scheduled for demolition, the owners decided it was more cost-effective to renovate instead.
A month later, the town council voted to condemn the property and the town manager William Booker (husband of a member of the election commission) wrote to a local power utility asking them to shut off the apartment’s power.
The women then moved in with former mayor Retha Pierce (who had been suspended from office following a hit-and-run violation) until a second member of the town’s Municipal Elections Commission (MEC) pressured the landlord to kick them out, despite their living there being allowed by the lease.
In the following election, Cole and Price got the necessary votes to win seats on the town council, but the two members they would have unseated– Charlene Taylor and Josephine Isom– challenged the results, saying Cole and Price were not legal residents of Atlantic Beach.
The MEC, which had originally certified the election two days after the election, put off hearings for four weeks before deciding in the incumbents’ favor on November 30 and ordering a new election. However, it was not until the following January that the order was put in writing.
The Supreme Court overruled that decision and ordered the two women placed on town council. In a unanimous decision, the Court said it was concerned the two council members who lost the election were still able to keep their seats for nearly 19 months after the vote. Writing the Court’s decision, Chief Justice Jean Toal said the justices were “weary of the shenanigans” performed by Atlantic Beach officials— it is the third time in six years the town’s elections have been before the Court.
The attempts by members of the MEC and the town manager to prevent Cole and Price from establishing residency were deplorable. The manner in which the MEC conducted the protest hearings causes us great concern and makes us question whether future election protests can be properly conducted in Atlantic Beach without direct monitoring by the State Election Commission. Nearly every Atlantic Beach municipal election held in recent history has found its way to this Court.
The justices questioned whether Atlantic Beach election protests could truly be fair under the MEC. They left open the possibility that the state Elections Commission might have to step in.