A grassroots petition to hold an election about curbside recycling in unincorporated Chatham County will officially kick off at the Earth Day festival in Forsyth Park on Saturday.
In March, an online petition was launched as a "really soft start. We wanted to see if there is enough public support," says Stacey Kronquest, one of two petition organizers. On Saturday, canvassers will begin circulating paper versions, collecting handwritten signatures of registered Chatham County voters.
At press time, the online petition had collected 1,182 electronic signatures. To generate a vote on the issue, 16,626 registered Chatham County voters must sign either the paper or electronic versions, according to the petition's website "recyclechatham.org."
The petition proposes to hold a county-wide vote to add the following sentence to a section of the "Chatham County charter:"
"In unincorporated portions of the county, waste services shall include single-stream curbside recycling of glass, plastic, aluminum, newspapers and magazines."
Kronquest and other organizers are implementing "a little used mechanism" in the Georgia constitution, allowing citizens to initiate amendments to county ordinances. Collecting signatures is the first of several steps in the process.
Once enough voters sign on, the petition will be submitted to the Probate Court for verification of the signatures. If the court determines that the petition has been signed by the required number of voters, a county-wide vote will be held. If a simple majority votes "yes," then the charter amendment passes.
Kronquest was one of several organizers of a similar petition drive in 2007, proposing curbside recycling for the City of Savannah. Kronquest credits that petition as motivating city leaders to move forward with the recycling plan that kicked off in January of this year.
"We had all the signatures," says Kronquest of the 2007 effort. "The week before we were going to turn them in to the city and the Voter Registration Board, [city manager] Michael Brown said, ‘We don't want a referendum.'"
There is no time limit mandated on collecting signatures, but organizers hope to have enough signers by next year.
"By Earth Day 2010 we would like to have it go to the probate judge [for validation of] signatures," says Kronquest. "If the county is still not convinced that their constituents want this as a service, we will look at the second half of 2010 for a referendum."
"The timing of the petition will determine when [the election] falls," says Election Supervisor Russell Bridges. Depending on when the signatures are submitted, the referendum could either be a special election, or it could be added to the ballot along with other scheduled elections.
A typical county-wide special election costs about $125,000 for training, transportation, and "all the other incidentals to pull off an election. Fixed staff costs are not factored in," says Bridges.
Kronquest and co-organizer Karen Grainey started the current petition after the Chatham County Commission voted in March to table indefinitely a vote on providing curbside recycling to the 71,000-plus residents of unincorporated Chatham County (2000 census).
Grainey met with county staff in April 2008 to discuss a recycling program. "Months and months went by, and we never heard anything from [them]," she says, until just before the March meeting. She was "disappointed" by what was proposed, and by the "lack of interest" coming from commissioners after a plan was presented.
"We are totally committed to the idea of recycling in Chatham County," says Commissioner Patrick Shay, "but the proposals we received were not satisfactory. We don't want to initiate a program that was flawed from the beginning."
Shay cites as a flaw the fact that the March proposal did not include glass recycling. "My concern was those who did recycle would still have to drive to recycling centers to do that."
Shay, Grainey and Kronquest all hoped that a county plan would take advantage of the sorting facility being developed by Pratt Recycling, the recycling contractor for the city. According to Grainey and Shay, county staff reported that Pratt Recycling is not currently available to participate in the county program.
"Waste handling could not be done by the same folks doing it for the city, because they are a little bit overwhelmed right now," says Shay. "If they can build their capacity they would like to eventually handle the waste from unincorporated Chatham County."
"The program is not dead, it's not dying, it's not even sick," says Shay. "But when you initiate a big government spending program, we'd like it to be right. If you start it off wrong it's going to be much harder to get it right later on."
The county proposal that was rejected "wasn't a very attractive proposition when compared to what the city has," says Grainey. "That was troubling. The lack of interest by the commissioners was troubling. The lack of communication with us, who approached them in 2008, was troubling. You put it all together and you start thinking ‘Well, maybe they need a little more encouragement.'"
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