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It's back to square one for residents and North Town Council members who had worked since November to get enough signatures on a petition for a referendum to let voters decide whether or not to change the town's form of government from strong mayor-weak council to strong council-weak mayor.

In order for the referendum to take place, the petition needed signatures from 15 percent of the town’s 536 registered voters, or 78 signatures in total.

Those who started the petition thought they had surpassed that number with 101 signatures when they presented the petition to Mayor Patty Carson on March 9.

But the effort fell short. 

Aurora Smalls, director of the Orangeburg County Voter Registration and Elections Commission, said when the town submitted the petition, there were 101 signatures on it. However, several of those signatures were deemed invalid, Smalls said.

Signatures from citizens who were either not registered to vote, not active voters, did not live within the city limits or had passed away since the petition started could not be included in the final count, which ended up being 75 signatures -- three shy of the total required.

According to Smalls, the remaining valid voters' signatures on the petition cannot be counted again. As a result, a new petition calling for a special election, or referendum, has to be circulated.

Sandy Sigmon, CEO of The Challenge Center in North, one of the locations that collected the signatures on the original petition, said members of North Town Council actually started the petition. She said Carson had not been allowing people to speak at council meetings unless they preregistered and stated the topic they wished to discuss or signed a request form the night of the meeting and be limited to commenting only on an agenda item for that specific meeting.

“I’m just as frustrated as anyone else,” Sigmon said. “People need to speak.” 

Also, she noted that financial statements and reports of administrative activities were not being made available to the public as they had been in previous administrations.

Carson was not available to comment.

The town's strong mayor form of government gives the mayor dual responsibilities as both a voting member and a presiding officer in addition to executive duties as chief administrative officer of the municipality.

Changing to the strong council form of government would allow North Town Council to delegate specific administrative duties to the mayor, who would have no powers or responsibilities beyond other council members.

Sigmon, who served as facilitator during an informational meeting at The Challenge Center on March 7, said approximately 60 citizens attended, along with four council members. The informational meetings are scheduled to be held each month at The Challenge Center, she said.

The purpose of the March 7 meeting was to receive input from citizens on how council meetings were being conducted, she said.

“We’re educating the community, we’re educating adults,” Sigmon said. “These meetings are open to anyone.”

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The Challenge Center has also been providing copies of town ordinances, the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, the petition itself and even the First Amendment to the Constitution, which establishes freedom of speech, she said.

“Anyone in the community can come in and look at them,” Sigmon said, adding that it's a way “of keeping the community informed.”

She said the response from the community to the meetings has been "great," noting that North citizens had already started collecting signatures for the new petition.

“I don’t have any doubts” that enough valid signatures can be collected this time, Sigmon said.

According to state law, once such a petition is presented to a mayor, that mayor must count and certify the number of signatures by initializing the petition. The mayor is then required to immediately send the petition to the county election commission.

Once verified by the county, the petition must be returned to the town council, which must arrange a special election on whether or not to change the local form of government.

The special election must be held within 30 to 90 days following the receipt of the petition by the town council. If a majority of those voting accept the proposal, the new form of local government would take effect at the next council meeting.

Sigmon said the next informational meeting at The Challenge Center will be at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 7. Representatives from the Municipal Association of South Carolina will be at the meeting to provide additional information on addressing the council. Starting a Crime Watch program in North will also be discussed.

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Contact the writer: jmack@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5516.

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