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City trades legal barbs with CRRC, CCRG

Posted: July 13, 2012 6:27 p.m.
Updated: July 16, 2012 5:00 a.m.

For several months, things have been quiet in the more than year-long controversy over the city of Camden’s pursuit of constructing a sports complex. The city purchased property on Campbell Street in March 2011 with the intention of building a sports complex, proposed using hospitality taxes to construct it and began negotiating with the YMCA of Columbia to manage it. The plan met not only with vocal opposition, but legal challenges as well.

Three times, a group of residents and business owners calling themselves the Camden Referendum Recreation Committee (CRRC) solicited signatures for petitions. Two of the petitions called for council to stop any further work. The third, offered in January, asked council to pass a very specifically worded ordinance setting up a ballot referendum for this November’s general election.

The city created a ballot referendum of its own.

Around the same time the CRRC handed up its third petition, Camden resident Herbert Farber and a group he formed -- the Camden Coalition for Responsible Government (CCRG) -- filed a lawsuit to block the city’s use of hospitality tax funds for the sports complex.

Days later, the city announced it was putting the project on hold.

Now, almost simultaneously, the CCRG has taken further steps in pursuing its lawsuit while the city has formally asked a circuit court judge to rule on the voter referendum language the CRRC offered with its January petition.

In a July 2 motion, Farber and the CCRG filed a motion to compel discovery, claiming the city has not been forthcoming with documents they believe are associated with council’s decision to use hospitality taxes to build the complex. Farber and the CCRG claim the city responded in March, but “raising various objections, including that certain documents were protected (by) the attorney/client privilege, and stating that certain other documents were ‘already in the possession of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.”

City attorneys were likely referring to documents the staff provided Farber in December after he filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Farber and his wife, Janet, said at the time that they were using the FOIA request to determine how to go forward with the lawsuit. The FOIA request was a little broader, also seeking information about the city’s plans to move forward with creating a tax incremental financing, or TIF, district to also help fund the sports complex and make other improvements. The request also looked into the purchase of the Campbell Street property, once the site of historic Boylan-Haven-Mather Academy.

The July 2 motion states that the city provided a supplemental response in May, but only of seven documents.

“Although (the city) apparently is withholding documents based on its claim of attorney/client privilege, it has not produced a privilege log identifying those documents and the basis for its claim of such privilege,” Farber and the CCRG state in the motion.

In the meantime, the city apparently had filed a motion at some point, asking for a speedy hearing in April. According to the Farber/CCRG motion, the city “claim(ed), among other things, that the parties had exchanged written discovery, despite the fact that it has not yet responded adequately to plaintiffs’ first request for production of documents.”

In an email exchange with the C-I, Farber also said that he and the CCRG have issued subpoenas in the case to the YMCA of Columbia, Kershaw County and KershawHealth. Farber deferred any questions about what documents he and the CCRG believe the city is withholding and why Kershaw County and KershawHealth are being subpoenaed in addition to the YMCA, to their attorney, Weston Adams III.

Adams declined to speak about the motion to compel, saying it “speaks for itself,” but did explain about the subpoenas, especially the one for KershawHealth.

“We are trying to figure out what’s out there,” Adams said. “It’s a perfectly friendly subpoena -- the Farbers support the hospital. We simply want to know, did the city submit anything to KershawHealth about the sports complex?”

City Manager Kevin Bronson would not comment specifically on the pending litigation, only saying that it is common for both sides in lawsuits of this type to seek as much information as possible through “many types of legally named mechanisms.”

Bronson did, however, confirm that the city had filed for declaratory relief in the CRRC petition matter.

“This action was filed to ascertain from a judge the validity of the petition and ordinance submitted,” he said. “It is the city’s position that the petition and ordinance are invalid. This judicial mechanism will definitively affirm or deny the city’s position.”

The language of CRRC’s proposed ordinance asked voters to approve or reject adopting an ordinance “to prohibit further funding and planning for the construction of a recreational sports complex as proposed by city council to be operated and managed by a third party such as the YMCA of Columbia and to establish the Camden Tourism and Recreational Needs and Funding Study Commission to propose alternative plans.” The ordinance  then went on, in seven sections, to spell out how the commission was to be formed and keep Camden City Council from taking any further action on its vision of a sports complex.

At council’s Jan. 24 meeting, City Attorney Charles Cushman advised council that the CRRC’s ordinance went “too far.” Cushman explained that there are “very limited things” voters can bring to a public vote. He asked that he be allowed to come up with another version of the ballot question. Council agreed, and, a month later, council passed, 4-1, with Councilman Willard Polk voting against, to the following language:

“Should the city of Camden continue with plans to construct a recreation facility and partner with a third party to administer the facility?”

The CRRC immediately said it was not happy with the ordinance. The group said that, according to state law, the city had to approve either the ordinance they had offered or one that was substantively similar. CRRC spokesperson Paddy Bell said at that same Jan. 24 meeting that council was “manipulating and distorting the ballot question with language that is vague and undefined as to be meaningless.”

Meanwhile, council instructed Cushman to seek the declaratory judgment on the CRRC language.

In emails exchanged Thursday and Friday, Bell calls the city’s new action “a lawsuit against its own citizens for daring to exercise their rights under South Carolina law.” She said the group finds the action “simply stunning” and that Camden Mayor Jeffrey Graham and his administration have “forgotten” that they serve the public.

“Not once, not twice, but three times, we have presented council with petitions on the matter of the proposed sports complex, seeking to give the public the right to decide the issue,” Bell said.

She noted that the CRRC’s first petition sought only an advisory referendum. An analysis of the first petition found that nearly half of the signatures were made by people living outside the city limits of Camden. The second petition “respectfully request(ed)” that the city hold a referendum as soon as possible regarding the sports complex and YMCA partnership. Despite obtaining more than a necessary 15 percent of eligible Camden voters’ signatures, Cushman advised council to forward the petition on to a circuit court judge for a declaratory judgment.

That delay led to the creation of the third petition and CRRC-crafted ordinance in January. Bell said more than 20 percent of voters signed that petition in just three weeks.

“Yet, in spite of all that, Mayor Graham and his administration are now suing us, (more than) 1,000 citizens of Camden, seeking to have the courts dismiss our third petition,” Bell said. “The continuing arrogance of these elected officials is just astonishing. They have no respect for us as citizens, no respect for the petition and referendum statute, and no respect for the voice of the people.”

Furthermore, Bell said it is the city’s version of the ordinance that should be thrown out.

“The petition and referendum law states that any ballot question must use language that is similar to the one proposed by the petitioners. Instead, city council threw out our language completely, threw out creating a recreational needs study commission, failed to cite proposed budget figures, funding sources, or even identify the project by the name they have been promoting it under (the YMCA Sports Complex), and changed the vote on our initiative from a ‘yes’ to a ‘no,’ in what seems to be an attempt to hide the facts and confuse the voters.

“CRRC assures the citizens of Camden that we will make every attempt to defend their referendum initiative to guarantee that their voices be heard,” Bell said.

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