A Villa Rica City Council member has raised questions about the qualifications of her opponent in last month’s city election.
On Monday, Ward 3 Councilwoman Leslie McPherson sent an email to her constituents, contending that Dr. Bernice Brooks, the candidate she defeated in the election, did not reside in the ward.
But Brooks said Tuesday that was not the case and that she would not debate the issue with McPherson.
“I’m not going to be involved in a dispute with Mrs. McPherson about where I live and all these kinds of things,” Brooks said. “I just wish her the best.”
McPherson, the incumbent in the Nov. 6 city elections, won re-election in her contest with Brooks, a retired educator, with 70.8 percent of the vote.
The issue of Brooks’ residency in the ward was not an issue in the campaign. But in her letter to Ward 3 constituents, McPherson said that due to “ongoing questions, Facebook posts, and small-town talk” she felt it “necessary to address this issue directly” with the citizens she represents.
McPherson also said in the letter that she had preferred to speak privately with Brooks, but was unable to do so despite four attempts to reach out to Brooks.
Brooks said Tuesday that she was aware of McPherson’s attempts to reach her, but that she has been busy with community activities.
In qualification documents filed prior to the election with the Carroll County Board of Elections and Registration, Brooks listed a Red Branch Road residence as her home. That house is located in the northeastern corner of Ward 3.
Brooks noted Tuesday that she has another residence, on Bailey Brooks Road. That home is located outside the ward, below Interstate 20, and is listed on Carroll County tax records as a county parcel, not part of any incorporated area.
The Bailey Brooks residence was the home she listed in 2012, when Brooks – a former member of the Carroll County Board of Education – was disqualified after her district was redrawn, accidentally leaving that house outside the district.
Brooks said Tuesday that her driver’s license and voter registration reflects that her address is now on Red Branch Drive, and that is now her legal residence.
“I legally the followed the law,” Brooks said. “If (McPherson) has a real, sincere question about it, then she needs to check with the (county) Board of Elections and the state Board of Elections.”
The issue became public on Monday, when McPherson sent an email to her constituents.
“After all the calls, questions, and rumors over the last months, this will be my statement regarding the recent Ward 3 campaign,” she wrote. “I have nothing to gain personally from speaking the truth on this matter and frankly it would be a lot easier just to sweep it under the carpet BUT we aren’t called to do what’s easy but to do what is right.”
She then cited the city’s charter, which specifies that eligible candidates for City Council must “reside in the ward for which he is elected.”
“I am truly sad to say that I have strong reasons, facts, witnesses and personal experience to believe that my opponent not only didn’t/doesn’t reside in Ward 3 but didn’t/doesn’t even reside in the city limits of Villa Rica, despite what signed paperwork and legal documents say,” McPherson’s statement said.
“I chose not to pursue challenging this for a few reasons once candidate qualification paperwork was completed in August. One reason was that instead of the important issues of the city being at the forefront of discussion, all attention would have been focused on this dispute. I didn’t want myself, the other candidate, or the city to get caught up in an ugly legal battle. I wanted to run a clean, positive campaign and let the voters decide.”
The location of Brooks’ residence was a major issue in 2012, during her re-election campaign for District 1 on the Carroll County Board of Education.
Brooks had represented the district for 12 years, but when state reapportionment officials redrew the district, her home was accidently placed outside the district. Because of that, the county Elections Board disqualified her as a candidate for re-election.
Brooks filed legal action and eventually won the right to remain on the ballot, and, following a run-off election, lost by eight votes to current District 1 board member Rob Cleveland.
In May 2016, she again lost to Cleveland in a bid to regain her school board seat.
According to Elections Board officials, Brooks listed her address as the Red Branch Drive residence during that 2016 campaign.
Brooks said Tuesday she had owned the Red Branch residence since 2010 and that it is now her legal residence. She said she consulted with legal counsel before entering the Villa Rica race.
Legal experts consulted by the Times-Georgian said that legal residency for candidates can be “difficult to tie down.”
The Georgia Code section that covers residency (21-2-217), lists 15 specific rules for election officials to determine the residency of a candidate. Some of those rules can be considered contradictory.
Rule 14, for example, states that “the specific address in the county or municipality in which a person has declared a homestead exemption … shall be deemed the person’s residence address.” Rule 15, however, states that an election superintendent can also consider “evidence of where the person receives significant mail, such as personal bills.”
According to Carroll County tax records, Brooks claims a homestead exemption at the Red Branch residence, and not at the Bailey Brooks home.
McPherson on Monday said she had not brought the issue of Brooks’ residency into the campaign so as not to detract from other issues in the race. But she said that such issues should not continue to emerge in local elections.
“This doesn’t need to keep happening,” McPherson said. “There needs to be a deterrent to this. So I don’t know if they need to clean up the law a little better so it makes it harder for people, I don’t know. But people need to be discouraged from doing this.”