COVINGTON - Democrat Randy Vinson is requesting that the Secretary of State disqualify his opponent, Tim Fleming, in the race for the District 5 county commission seat.
In a letter sent to Secretary of State Karen Handel on Wednesday, Vinson's campaign chairman, Paul Oeland, claims that because the Newton County Board of Elections took no action on a residency challenge against Fleming, Vinson has been denied his right to appeal in Superior Court.
"In your capacity as the Chief Elections Official for the State of Georgia, and in your capacity as the Chairperson for the State Election Board, as you know you have the duty for coordinating the obligations of the entire state, and its political subdivisions, under the elections laws and rules, and to investigate elections laws and irregularities," Oeland's letter states. "Because of the abrogation of its duty by the Newton County Board of Elections, and because there is no other right of review and/or appeal, I formally request that you investigate this matter, and determine that Mr. Fleming is unqualified, because of his residence, to stand for election for the 5th District seat of the Newton County Board of (Commissioners)."
The two-person board was at a stalemate at a hearing earlier this month, 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.
"The problem that causes us is that the statute only gives someone the right to appeal to Superior Court the final decision of the superintendent," Oeland, who is an attorney, said in an interview Thursday. Since the board made no decision, "We are left without the right of appeal."
Fleming insists he meets the qualifications to run for commissioner and called the newest attempt to disqualify him "nothing but desperate partisan politics at its worst."
"This is nothing but a publicity stunt now through Randy Vinson's campaign to distract voters from the issues at hand," Fleming said. "They don't want to get out and work hard and try to win the election so they try to pull stunts like this to try and take the election away from the voters."
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 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 currently 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.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.