Challenge filed against Fleming

COVINGTON - A residency challenge has been filed against District 5 Board of Commissioners Republican candidate Tim Fleming.

In a challenge filed with the Newton County Board of Elections on Friday, District 5 resident Jerry Childers alleges that Fleming maintains a homestead exemption on property located outside the district and is, therefore, not qualified to run for office.

"It is my belief ... that Mr. Fleming maintains his homestead exemption on his home at 35 Mandy Lane, Covington, Georgia, and that this home is clearly outside of District 5, and that he moved into a home owned by his father (according to real estate records of Newton County) inside District 5 immediately before his qualifying to run for office," Childers states in his challenge.

Childers, the first vice chair of the Newton County Democratic Party, said the matter was brought to his attention by Fleming's opponent, Randy Vinson, adding that Vinson asked him to file the challenge.

Childers said he had not done any independent research on the issue, except to verify that the Mandy Lane residence is not in District 5, saying he took most of his information from Vinson and a local newspaper.

"Randy seems to be on top of it ... We've all got to go by rules and that's one reason I signed off on it," he said.

Paul Oeland, Vinson's campaign manager, said there have been rumors about Fleming's residency since qualifying took place in April.

"Randy has been very reluctant all along to address this issue because it's just iffy," Oeland said.

After reading Secretary of State Karen Handel's ruling on a residency challenge against Public Service Commission candidate Jim Powell, however, Oeland said, "I made the decision for Randy to do something about it. It felt to me that it was something the Democratic Party ought to be doing. Jerry indicated on behalf of the Democratic Party he would file the challenge."

When asked why he didn't file the challenge himself, Vinson said, "I really thought it should come from the Democratic Party. I think that's what it's supposed to do, is represent the candidates."

In the letter, Childers said he is filing the challenge as a resident and registered voter of District 5 and makes no mention of the Democratic Party.

Oeland said he did not write the challenge but "sketched out what I thought the law required," and provided Childers with a copy of a press release issued by Handel on the Powell decision.

"We have received, unsolicited, six to eight separate comments from people that say (Fleming's) primary residence is still outside the district, that the Floyd Street address was obtained solely to run for the seat," Oeland said. "I didn't think that mattered or was relevant until I read over the Jim Powell decision."

Fleming initially said he would not comment on the matter, adding that he had not received notification of the challenge. Later, however, his attorney, Jim Alexander, called the Citizen.

Alexander said Fleming's primary residence is at a home at 1194 Floyd St. Fleming and his wife moved into the home in late March and are renting it under a lease-purchase agreement from Fleming's father, District 3 County Commissioner Ester Fleming Jr., Alexander said.

Fleming owns a home at 35 Mandy Lane in Orchard Park subdivision, Alexander said, and maintains a homestead exemption on that property.

The Georgia Code states that the property for which an exemption is filed is considered the primary residence and "the homestead exemption must be actually occupied as the permanent residence and place of abode by the applicant awarded the exemption."

The Mandy Lane home was Fleming's primary residence when the homestead exemption was filed earlier this year, Alexander said.

The address on Fleming's driver's license and voter registration card have been changed to the Floyd Street address, he said, adding that if necessary, Fleming can produce utility bills showing the Floyd Street address is occupied. Bills for the Mandy Lane address show much smaller usage, he said.

When asked if Fleming moved to the Floyd Street house in order to run for District 5, Alexander said, "The motivation was to live in downtown Covington," pointing out that Fleming's father and mother own additional property in the area.

The Mandy Lane house has been on the market since May, he said.

Though Alexander said he has not yet seen the challenge filed with the Board of Elections, "Our initial position with the board will be that it is not a timely challenge, and we'll be happy to disclose any other information about Tim's residence," he said. Alexander said he believed Georgia law limits the time period for filing a challenge to within two weeks of the close of qualifying, which ended May 2.

"I just wish we would let voters decide who needs to be elected without trying to litigate in front of the Board of Elections and Superior courts," Alexander said.

The Board of Elections will hold a special called meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday to discuss the challenge. The meeting will take place in the Newton County Administration Building at 1113 Usher St. The public is invited.

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