Judge ponders costs in Bellevue incorporation

By BUSTER WOLFE,

The financial responsibility of the group seeking to incorporate Bellevue is expected to be decided in the next week after the Citizens Against the Proposed Incorporation of Bellevue  filed a motion seeking attorneys’ fees, experts’ costs and a moratorium for refiling for incorporation.

Special Chancellor Michael H. Ward heard the motion to dismiss the case filed by the Citizens of Bellevue incorporators and the motion to recoup expenses last Thursday morning in the William J. “Pete” Gamble Chancery Courthouse in Purvis. The petition to incorporate Bellevue was filed in the 10th District Chancery Court on March 19, 2017.   

Jackson attorney Chad Mask, who is representing the Citizens of Bellevue group supporting incorporation of the city, said recently he wants dismissal of the case without prejudice, where no restrictions are placed on another attempt at incorporation.

Speaking for the incorporation opponents were Purvis attorney William Ducker and Hattiesburg lawyer Robin Roberts, and attorney Jerry Mills, who was hired by the City of Hattiesburg to oppose the incorporation because of the Hub City’s annexation efforts into the area.

Ducker and Mills both supported similar motions on having the incorporators – who sought dismissal of the effort – pay for the costs of the trial. Mills, who had been in other annexation hearing with Mask, said the process of checking signatures is time-consuming.

“We had set aside two weeks to determine the signatures in this case,” he said. “It took one week in the Gluckstadt annexation.”

Mills said refiling the petition would require a new set of signatures. “Voter rolls don’t remain constant,” he said. “If we count two thirds as of the date filed, then the work has to be redone.”

The petition for incorporating a town must have signatures of at least two thirds of the qualified electors in the area. Ducker said the incorporators filed for dismissal because they didn’t have enough signatures.

“They came forward premature,” he said. “They didn’t have enough signatures.”

Mills said the legal process has been expensive.

“The City of Hattiesburg has spent more than $50,000 in this case,” he said. “It puts the defenses at a true disadvantage.”

Mask countered that the opponents’ attorney would not have received compensation if it had been a complete trial with depositions, testimony and a ruling. “They are seeking something that they wouldn’t have gotten if the trial had taken a year,” he said.

Roberts, however, compared the current litigation to a baseball game.

“When a pitcher starts to throw the ball and he stops before the pitch, it is a balk,” he said. “He is not allowed to balk without someone taking a base. What we’ve got here is a balk.”

Mills said the incorporation attorneys should be responsible for the litigation costs because they didn’t follow through on the trial.

“We’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars,” he said. “They should accept the risk. The work we’ve done would not be usable if they are allowed to refile.”

Ducker said his work on the case has been taxing.

“We have answered an extensive discovery,” he said, talking about checking the petition’s signatures. “Actually, one guy signed five times.”

The motion to dismiss by the Bellevue Incorporators follows through on a December 2017 announcement by proposed Mayor John Adcock to pull back the petitions for incorporation.

“The Petitioners have decided that, out of an abundance of caution, the best course of action is to voluntarily withdraw their Petitions, obtain additional signatures, and re-file their Petition to Incorporate,” Adcock said in a Facebook post. “Simply put, the incorporation of the new City of Bellevue is far too important an endeavor to continue without undeniable certainty.”

Mask is the lead attorney who filed the 4,118-page petition for Bellevue incorporation. He said in an earlier interview the group is not backing away from eventually becoming a city.

“The Bellevue folks are continuing to gather additional signatures with full intentions of re-filing their incorporation petition, probably later this year,” he said.

The question of having enough signatures on the petitions for incorporation came to the forefront last year after residents opposing the Bellevue move said discrepancies existed in the petitions.

Ducker said about 1,000 signatures fell short of the number required by law to complete the process.

Ducker told about 50 members of the group, Citizens against the Proposed City of Bellevue, “We have a violation of statute. Unless a judge allows the group to amend their petition, it does not have the required signatures.”

According to examination by the citizens group, the petition contains 2,184 signatures, about 300 short of the required number. With another 600 signatures that appeared to be invalid, the petition appears to fall between 900 and 1,000 signatures short of the required number.

 

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