Abrupt, unusual ending to Beaufort County Council meeting postpones vote on land preservation referendum

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comJune 9, 2014 

Discussion of a proposed referendum to fund Beaufort County Council's Rural and Critical Lands Program ended in mid-sentence Monday night.

The abrupt ending postponed a scheduled vote on the proposal and left all 11 council members shaking their heads and bustling out of Council Chambers in Beaufort.

However, the council will still have its next three scheduled meetings to consider the referendum for inclusion on ballots this fall, council Chairman Paul Sommerville said.

The proposed referendum would raise $20 million to continue the county's land preservation program, managed by the Open Land Trust, but includes a provision that would allow limited economic development on the properties involved.

Most council members have said they disagree with the economic development provision, and council was discussing whether to include such language in the proposal at the end of its meeting, just before 8 p.m.

According to council rules, a meeting is automatically adjourned at 8 p.m. unless council votes to extend it by a half-hour.

In the final few minutes before the deadline, Sommerville attempted to squeeze in two votes -- one to remove the language about economic development, and another to approve the amended referendum language.

A motion to extend the meeting, made by Councilwoman Laura Von Harten with several minutes to spare, was ignored.

Several comments that followed took the council's discussion to the 8 p.m. mark before Sommerville was able to call for a vote, so the meeting automatically adjourned and a vote could no longer legally be taken, county attorney Josh Gruber said.

"I was incorrectly convinced we could knock this thing out," Sommerville said. "I've never bumped up against the 8 o'clock hour, and I didn't realize some people take it as seriously as they did. It was my mistake."

Von Harten and councilman Bill McBride, who also appeared to suggest a vote to extend the meeting, immediately stood and left while Sommerville and other council members discussed what could be done.

Sommerville tried to suspend council rules to allow the body "just 30 seconds more" to complete the first of three votes on the referendum, he said. As chairman, he can suspend the rules, but only without objection, according to Gruber.

Councilman Jerry Stewart objected, however, because several council members had left the chamber and "the vote won't be representative of the full council."

It appeared council voted to remove the economic development language of the ordinance before adjourning, but Gruber said he will review footage of the meeting to confirm the vote met the deadline. No vote was taken to approve the referendum, he added.

Council's next meeting is scheduled for June 23 in Beaufort.

Referendums require council to hold three votes and a public hearing before they can be placed on ballots in the fall. The deadline to approve the ballot questions is Aug. 15, and there are three council meetings scheduled before that deadline, Gruber said. The council also can hold special meetings if necessary, he added.

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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