THOMASVILLE — A Thomas County Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday that a contested Clinch County Board of Elections meeting was “adequate and lawful.”
“ ... There was no error of law,” Southern Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Harry Jay Altman ruled after hearing from attorneys for the board of elections and a Clinch County citizen who challenged a board proceeding.
Ronji Edmonds challenged incumbent Homerville City Councilmember James E. Witherspoon III’s candidacy. Edmonds claimed Witherspoon was an ineligible candidate, based on homestead exemptions the council member filed on residences in Lowndes County and in Florida.
C.B. King Jr., representing Edmonds, told the court he and his client were prepared to present facts based on what took place at the board of elections' 2015 meeting.
King said Edmonds was prepared to testify about when he received the meeting notice and he was “saddled with” an emergency situation he could not miss. Edmonds asked the elections board if the meeting could be rescheduled.
Also, King said, Witherspoon was allowed to go before the elections panel and oppose grounds presented as the basis for the complaint.
Chad R. Corlee, legal counsel for the elections board, said Edmonds, who was notified about the hearing date, said he had a family emergency and requested the date be changed. The board requested a doctor’s excuse.
“No doctor’s excuse was ever given to the board of elections,” Corlee said, adding the hearing took place as scheduled. “(Mr.) Edmonds did not show up for his hearing.”
In reference to the homestead tax exemption claim, Corlee told the court, “If that is all you’ve got, you cannot remove a candidate from the ballot based on homestead exemption.”
King argued that his client, as a voter and petitioner, is entitled to an opportunity to address the elections board.
He said the reason Edmonds could not attend the meeting was because his mother was in the hospital in Gainesville, Fla. Edmonds received notice of the meeting in the mail the day of the hearing. The mailed notice did not have a postmark from the post office, King explained.
Corlee responded, “I do not know why the post office would not post mark a letter. It was hand-delivered to the post office.”
“I don’t know what else the board of elections could have done,” Corlee told the court.
“(Mr.) Edmonds is in possession of more evidence than just homesteading,” King said.
King said Corlee and Witherspoon have an attorney/client relationship. “ ... Objectivity is clearly at stake,” he added.
The court, King said, should receive evidence to determine whether the elections board proceeding was unlawful. Also, he said, the court needs to determine if Corlee should have served as elections board chairman when Witherspoon was a client.
Corlee countered, “I have never represented (Mr.) Witherspoon that I know of.”
Explaining that he has represented boards of education, cities and counties, Corlee said he has served as hearing officer for each of the entities and labeled King’s assertion as “a personal attack.”
King mentioned a letter from Corlee to the Georgia Attorney General’s Office which lists reasons for non-compliance with the Georgia Open Meetings Law in connection with the hearing in question.
A letter from the Attorney General’s Office to Jamayla Morehead, a Homerville citizen, concerned her complaint involving the elections board meeting and the open meetings law. In 2015, Morehead sought the council seat held by Witherspoon, who was elected to a second term in the contest.
In his ruling, Altman said evidence supports the decision of the elections board, but he could not rule on whether the law was violated in regard to Witherspoon’s listed homestead exemptions.
Edmonds, the judge said, was given notice, was told what to do “and failed to do so.”
After the judge’s ruling, King said he wanted the record to show the court denied Edmonds the right to present evidence.
“I have ruled on all of that,” Altman responded.
Altman told King he was not counsel of record for Morehead. King turned to speak to Morehead, who was seated at a table next to Edmonds, and told the judge Morehead wanted him to represent her.
King said Morehead was appearing “as a petitioner in her own right.”
Altman formally apologized for not asking Morehead for her input, but his ruling remained.
An appeal will be considered, King said.
Terry Richards is an editor at The Valdosta Daily Times.