Atlantic Beach election finalized after heated hearing

ATLANTIC BEACH, SC (WMBF) - The results of Atlantic Beach's recent election are more certain after a heated hearing to certify the votes.

The results confirm Jake Evans won the race for Mayor, and Charlene Taylor and Josephine Isom won the most votes for the two open town council seats.

The town's election commission held a public hearing Thursday about dozens of votes that were challenged during voting Tuesday. An estimated 141 people voted in person or by absentee ballot in the election for Atlantic Beach mayor and two town council seats. There were a total of 60 challenges.

Tempers flared during the hearing, but nonetheless with only 17 of the challenged ballots added to the preliminary results, Evans, Taylor and Isom maintained their victories.

"We feel great," commented Evans. "Everyone else feels great, and like I said before, everyone in the town - the morale was low and you could see the spirit of everybody now is just as happy as they can be. That makes me happy when my town's people are happy."

Results could mean reversal of employee firings

Evans and Taylor said they plan to use their majority with Isom to vote for some changes as soon as they are sworn in. They plan to reverse some actions led by council members Windy Price and Carolyn Cole over the summer.

In late July, the state Supreme Court removed Taylor and Isom from town council and said Price and Cole were the rightful council members. Although Price and Cole received the most votes as write-in candidates in the 2009 election, Taylor and Isom had remained on council because the election commission overturned the results of that election.

Shortly after the court's decision Price and Cole were sworn in, and they quickly held a meeting with council member Donnell Thompson to form a majority. The three council members voted to fire several town employees including the town's three-person police force. They also dismissed Town Manager William Booker on a three week paid vacation and never asked him to return to his job.

Evans and Taylor said Thursday their first priority after being sworn in will be to hire Booker for the manager position again.

"We need to put our town manager back in. He's been a big big help to this community," Taylor said. "We're going to put him right back in office and continue what we've set out to do."

They also said they plan to put Eric Lewis back in the position of Police Chief. Other firings and hirings may not be as immediate, but they will be considered Evans and Taylor said.

"The people of the town were happy and upbeat and [Price and Cole] came in here and destroyed all of that over the last three months, and now they seemed to have got it back," Evans said.

Taylor and Isom will make up half of town council when they are sworn in. Price and Cole will maintain their positions as the other half of town council as they finish out the remaining time on their current terms.

After achieving nearly iconic status as the mayor of Atlantic Beach, Retha Pierce appears to be on her way out of elected office in the town. Pierce became infamous for legal battles because of criminal charges while in office. Several of those charges have been dropped, and Pierce is appealing at least one court decision.

Pierce or other candidates may decide to protest the election, but as of Thursday afternoon no candidate had filed a protest.

Commission defaulted to not counting votes

Before the final results of the election could be determined, the election commission of three members had to decide on the 60 challenges. They immediately denied 13 challenges and allowed those votes to count. Commission chairwoman Nicole Kenion said the challenges were based on questions of residency and the commission used records from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and input from the town's police officers to determine those 13 challenged voters live in Atlantic Beach.

Patricia Bellamy, who has been an outspoken supporter of Price and Cole, was listed as the challenger of 45 of the 47 other challenged ballots. She told the commission members she questioned if the voters she challenged lived in Atlantic Beach. For most of the challenges Bellamy presented a print out of information she apparently gathered from the people search website Bellamy's information was not shared publicly, but the challenged voters who were present at the hearing were allowed to see the information Bellamy presented.

Not all 45 voters challenged by Bellamy were present, but the voters do not have to be present. Only the challenger has to be at the hearing. Of the voters who did attempt to defend their votes in person, only one woman presented evidence that convinced the commission to count her vote. The commission upheld the other 41 challenges, so those voted did not county. Bellamy withdrew three challenges.

James and Etta DeWitt were two voters who Bellamy challenged. They presented voter registration cards for Atlantic Beach and utility bills for their business and residence in the town. They said they do have other residences, but they have chosen to register and vote only in Atlantic Beach since 2004.

"I believe that why I was challenged is because they think that I voted for someone they are against," said James DeWitt.

The election commission also chose not to count Rita Tucker's ballot based on Bellamy's challenge, although Bellamy apparently presented no evidence to dispute Tucker's residency. Tucker said she moved from the upstate in September of 2010. She has not updated her driver's license, but she did present the commission her voter registration card for Atlantic Beach and 12 rent receipts signed by her landlord in Atlantic Beach. She also had a letter from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which apparently verified her physical address in Atlantic Beach.

Bellamy did not present any evidence to support her challenge of at least four other ballots. However, the election commission members did not count those votes either. (Those challenges are included in the 41 challenges by Bellamy that were upheld.)

Only two other challenges came from someone other than Bellamy. Those challenges came from two different people and neither was present at the hearing Thursday. By law, a challenged ballot must be counted if the challenger is not present to explain the reason for the challenge. However, even without the challengers present the election commission voted to uphold the challenges, and those two ballots were not counted.

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