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Sec. of State won't hear Fleming case

COVINGTON - Secretary of State Karen Handel has declined to review a residency challenge against District 5 county commission candidate Tim Fleming.

"The Secretary of State does not have jurisdiction over residency challenges regarding county commission candidates and will not take further action on this matter," Matthew Carrothers, director of media relations for the Secretary of State's Office, said Tuesday.

Fleming's opponent, Democrat Randy Vinson, requested that Handel get involved after the Newton County Board of Elections failed to take action at a hearing in September.

"Clearly, we think it's a shame that we're not going to get an answer on this issue," said Vinson's campaign manager, Paul Oeland. "Again, we think the law is very clear, and we think it's a shame the Secretary of State's Office is not stepping in and providing guidance in this case as it has with other cases. Ultimately, it's up to the voters of District 5 to really decide the issue of Tim's residency versus Randy's long-term, significant experience."

For his part, Fleming said he's continuing to focus on the issues and not get involved with what he calls dirty politicking.

"Like I've said the entire time, I've done nothing wrong. From day one, I've been qualified to stand for election in District 5. This is nothing but partisan politics of desperation," Fleming said. "It's a sad state that Randy Vinson and Paul Oeland have tried to circumvent the electoral process. There's no merit to their complaint and allegations; they're all false. They did not succeed in trying to take the election away from the voters of District 5 and trying to make a mockery of the electoral process."

Fleming's residency was initially challenged by Jerry Childers, vice chair of the Democratic Party, who claimed Fleming is not qualified to run for the District 5 seat because he has a homestead exemption on property outside the district.

The Board of Elections dismissed Childers' challenge because it was not filed within two weeks of the close of qualifying as required by law. However, since the board faces no similar time limitations, it opted to pose its own challenge against Fleming.

During the Sept. 18 hearing, Fleming testified that he has lived in a house at 1194 Floyd St. in District 5 since March. The house is owned by Fleming's father, county Commissioner Ester Fleming Jr.

Fleming is renting the house under a lease-purchase agreement.

Fleming maintains a homestead exemption on his property at 35 Mandy Lane in commission District 4, which he said is for sale. Fleming said he intends to buy the Floyd Street property once the home on Mandy Lane is sold.

Oeland argued that residency is determined by homestead exemption when it comes to qualifying for election, citing a case involving Public Service Commission candidate Jim Powell, in which Handel ruled that Powell was not qualified to run because he maintained a homestead exemption outside the district. That case is on appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.

At the Sept. 18 Board of Elections hearing, the two-person board was at a stalemate, with Democratic appointee Jeanette Perry wanting to disqualify Fleming and Republican appointee Stan Edwards wanting to drop the challenge. Chairman Hugh Steele recused himself because he had made a contribution to Fleming's campaign. The board having failed to reach a consensus, the challenge was dropped by default, based on advice given by the board's advising attorney, Peter Olson.

Oeland said that the board's non-decision denied Vinson his legal right to appeal to Superior Court.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.