Atlantic Beach scolded over election, incumbents ordered off council

A previous Atlantic Beach election protest hearing

The South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled the Atlantic Beach Election Commission shouldn't have overturned the results of an election two years ago, accusing the board of a conscious decision to thwart the will of the voters.

In a unanimous decision released Thursday, the justices ordered the two women who got the most votes in November 2009 to be placed on Town Council and kicked off the incumbents who held the seats and had appealed the election.

Those incumbents are Charlene Taylor and Josephine Isom.

In the 2009 election, two write-in candidates, Windy Price and Carolyn Cole, were declared winners for seats on the Atlantic Beach Town Council.

But Taylor and Isom protested the results, questioning the legal residency of Price and Cole and citing irregularities in the election process.

A few weeks later, the town's election commission held a hearing that lasted 11 hours, with the commission deciding in favor of the incumbents and ordering a new election.

Cole and Price filed an appeal, but last June, Judge Benjamin Culbertson upheld the election commission's decision and it appeared the town was headed for a new election.

But Cole and Price appealed that decision, too, all the way to the state Supreme Court.

In the Supreme Court hearing last April, the justices heard arguments from both sides and then told attorneys they would take the case under advisement and issue a ruling later, which came Thursday.

Taylor is serving as acting mayor, in place of suspended mayor Retha Pierce. According to town manager William Booker, a decision about who will take over that role will need to be made at a town council meeting once Cole and Price are seated.

Pierce faces a resisting arrest charge, dating back to Christmas Day, 2007. A first trial on the charge ended in a hung jury. No date has been set for the retrial.

Pierce is suspended until the outcome of that trial, with her term ending this November.

In the opinion released Thursday, Chief Justice Jean Toal called the actions of the town Election Commission deplorable.

"The manner in which the MEC {Municipal Election Commission} conducted the protest hearings causes us great concern and makes us question whether future election protests can be properly conducted in Atlantic Beach without direct monitoring by the State Election Commission. Nearly every Atlantic Beach municipal election held in recent history has found its way to this Court. We have grown weary of the shenanigans engaged in by all parties involved in the election process at Atlantic Beach, and will not hesitate to issue sanctions if the election laws of this State continue to be blatantly disregarded. For the forgoing reasons, we vacate the MEC's decision to de-certify the election, and order the original certification of Appellants Cole and Price as winners to be restored."

The court ordered that Cole and Price should immediately begin serving in their roles on town council "upon issuance of the remittitur in this case," or once the order is entered.

NewsChannel 15 spoke with Charlene Taylor about today's ruling. She said she is disappointed in the courts decision and doesn't think justice was done. She added she's enjoyed working with the town and "it's been my duty to do what I can for the community." Taylor is a long-time resident of Atlantic Beach and has held public office for more than a decade. Taylor said she has no plans to appeal the courts decision.

Town manager William Booker said he didn't have much to say about the court's ruling, just that they had a matter before them and they made a decision.

He said he expects Cole and Price to be seated within the next two weeks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.