Originally created 04/18/99

Blackville pickets possible over jail



Joe Hammonds will look his mayor in the eye Monday and ask him to resign.

The Blackville, S.C., resident knows that his town council probably won't give him a chance to speak at its regular meeting -- it hasn't for quite some time.

Mayor Jackie Holman refuses to recognize residents who have anything negative to say about a maximum-security prison proposed for this tiny farming town. But that doesn't bother Mr. Hammonds.

He and several other residents are planning a picket on the front steps of town hall on Railroad Avenue if he can't speak at the public meeting at 7:30 p.m.

In question is whether Mr. Holman is breaking South Carolina's dual office-holding provision. It prohibits corrections officers with arrest powers from holding elected positions.

Corrections Department Director Doug Catoe sent a letter to Mr. Holman on Feb. 26 informing him that he may be violating the provision and told him that legal counsel is researching the matter.

The Augusta Chroniclehas requested that letter under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.

"I'll plainly tell him to resign and have everything that he's done concerning the prison declared invalid," Mr. Hammonds said.

Mr. Hammonds will remind the mayor what the Attorney General has said: Corrections officers who enforce laws within the penal system cannot hold elected positions because they are officers of peace.

And the South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that when a public official seeks a second position, the law interprets acceptance of the second office as an abandonment of the first.

It isn't likely that Mr. Holman will relinquish the seat he's held since 1995. Nor is it likely that the Department of Corrections will ask him to resign if found guilty of violating the state constitution.

What is more likely is that citizens who oppose the prison will use the situation to ask a court to void decisions concerning it if Mr. Holman participated in them.

And citizens have marked their calendars for the November elections. The mayor is up for re-election if he chooses to run again. So are council members Michael Creech, Emma Peacock and Kelvin Isaac.

Of those, Mr. Creech and Mr. Isaac have supported granting residents a public vote.

Mr. Holman did not return phone calls left at his home.

Citizens first heard about the prison after the council had already voted to put Blackville's name in the pot for the new maximum-security facility. These are the key events in the controversy:

Mr. Holman was hired as a corrections officer on Aug. 4, 1997. Two weeks later, after 25 minutes behind closed doors, town council voted to inquire about applying for a maximum-security prison in Blackville.

Less than 48 hours after that meeting, the first appraisal of the property was submitted to the town of Blackville.

On Sept. 8, 21 days after the first closed-door meeting, Mr. Holman wrote a letter to the Corrections Department committing the town to the prison. At that time, residents knew nothing about the prison. Council members still haven't taken an official vote to accept the prison.

"It seems to me that the mayor has a choice -- give up city hall or give up his job with the Department of Corrections," said resident Gene Fickling. "We are demanding direct answers from the DOC and the town of Blackville. And we will see to it that our state constitution is upheld."

Chasiti Kirkland can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.