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Herald Analysis - City elections tarnished by controversies
Georgia Southern students Katie Urquhart, 18, and Natalie Batelann, 19,fill out absentee ballots on the steps of City Hall Friday so they can participate in the last day of early voting for city council elections.
It may be obvious to call the Statesboro City Council elections contentious as Election Day looms on Tuesday – some might say this year’s contest will go down as the most contentious in city history – but it also has been a fascinating study in small town politics.
    In a stereotypical town vs. gown battle, the divisions have mostly resulted from the actions of three groups: The College Student Association, which was formed to register students to vote and supported behind the scenes by local bar interests; second was the self-named Statesboro Citizens for Good Government, which was formed, members said, to counter the perceived use of misinformation campaign — used to rally the student registrations — and challenged many of the registrations; finally there are the candidates themselves, who behaved cordially in public and when talking to the press but worked feverishly behind the scenes to undermine each other.

It begins
    It all started when the candidates announced their intentions to run for city council on Aug. 27. The very next day, flyers were handed out for a group calling itself the College Student Association, which was not an officially recognized Georgia Southern University student group. It was later discovered that CSA is partially financed by Retriever’s Bar and Grill. District 2 candidate Nathan Queen is employed by Retriever’s.
    The CSA flyers stated the group’s support for District 3 incumbent Will Britt, along with support for Queen and District 5 challenger, Travis Chance, a former roommate of Rude Rudy’s owner, John Starkey. Mohammad Khan, owner of Don Corleone’s pizza, volunteered the time and money to put up the Web site, which mirrored the information on the flyers. It was up and running Aug. 29.
    The flyers indicated support for changing the alcohol ordinance to include Sunday alcohol sales, bringing back an expanded happy hour and changing the rules to allow the purchase of more than two drinks at a time. In addition, they mentioned repealing the parking ordinance prohibiting front yard parking, readdressing the towing issue and being a voice for the students.
    The group was formed by Cameron “Cam” Lewellen, 28, who worked as a DJ and karaoke host for Retriever’s and other local restaurants, is considered a close friend by Queen. Lewellen said he founded the group because he believed students were under represented in city government.
    The primary purpose of CSA was to register students to vote – en masse. To that end, they helped 15 individuals get sworn in as deputy registrars – including Retriever’s owner Jason Franklin – and scheduled at least 30 different voter registration drives at student-dominated apartment complexes and on the GSU campus. In the end, the CSA registration drives accounted for the bulk of newly registered voters in Statesboro for the city election.

Candidate forum
    Aside from the voter drives, which kept the Bulloch County Board of Registrars awash in voter registration forms for much of September and well into October, the campaign quietly moved forward. The next big event was the candidate’s forum, hosted by the GSU Student Government Association and organized by student Bryan Toles.
    The evening started with a welcome by Statesboro Mayor Bill Hatcher, which continued into a lecture about his opinions on the city council decisions over the past year.
    Connect Statesboro Editor Jake Hallman recounted the event in a blog, posted on “He began his remarks with positive words about Statesboro's growth and Georgia Southern's huge role in that. Then, things got interesting. I (and many observers, it seems) expected him to stop there, with the usual ‘Happy to be here, Statesboro's great, good to see you students involved.’ He didn't. Instead, he launched into a defense of the city's actions that were direct causes of such a contentious election. By doing so, he effectively endorsed the incumbents.”
    Then, it was the candidates’ turn to address the audience. Britt started by apologizing for stating on the radio “police specifically target the students.” He also said students have been systematically ignored by the council.
    Gary Lewis, District 2 incumbent, threw the next gauntlet by suggesting that Queen was put up to running against him and that he was running just to “get alcohol if enough friends get on the council.”
    Harry “Bubba” Propes, District 3 challenger, said in his statement he had no particular business interest or rental property in town and stated he’s “not here to capitalize on you as students” – a thinly veiled reference to Britt’s interests.
    When it was Queen’s turn to speak, he stated that laws were being selectively enforced and that the city is against the students. He opined that the council only votes on student issues when they are out of town.
    After the forum, election rhetoric again quieted down. While the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair rolled into town, the registrar’s office worked diligently to process the thousands of registration forms, so they could order a comprehensive elector’s list from the Georgia Secretary of State’s office in time for early voting on Oct. 29.

The ‘challenge’ bombshell
    A real bombshell dropped the Tuesday before early voting began. It was discovered that a group calling themselves Statesboro Citizens for Good Government filed what was later determined to be 909 voter challenges, questioning the residency validity of 909 students. Included the the list of challenged voters was Councilman John Morris' two voting aged children as well as the daughter of Richard Marz, local dentist and owner of Midtown Market.
    One of the group’s organizers, Nancy Waters, said, “We are concerned that young students who just came to Statesboro, who were registered in this massive registration drive out at GSU, were misled about the City of Statesboro and how it operates.”
    She also said that students had come to her and other members of the group and expressed concern about individuals operating the voter registration drives on campus. The students had witnessed these individuals encouraging students to register because “the city was going to close the bars” so they should vote for the CSA supported candidates.
    This action by the citizens group caused a strong reaction from the CSA supported candidates. Queen said the group’s move showed the community “how crooked” the city government is and that their effort was nothing less than “trying to use scare tactics to prevent students from voting.”
    Britt’s reaction was even more harsh and personal. He said Nancy Waters, as a member of the Alcohol Control Board, which is appointed by the city, should have remained politically neutral. Along those lines, he said he would  “be asking for [Water’s] resignation from the Alcohol Control Board at the next city council meeting” adding that Waters and fellow group founder, Nancy Hines, were nothing but “two bitter old women … with a political agenda.”

    At the same time the petitions were discovered, a rumor began floating around campus about the possibility that changing voter registration to Statesboro could affect the students’ financial aid status and even their dependency status on their parents’ IRS tax returns. A number of professors reported students discussing the issues in class and a couple even brought it into the class discussion.
    It was reported by the Herald, in conversations with Connie Murphey, Director of Financial Aid at GSU, and Mark Green, IRS spokesman, that the rumors were unfounded. Voter registration has no effect on financial aid or dependency status.
    Though the other rumors were cleared up, the challenges remained a contentious topic that continued to escalate the ire and determination is the student’s to overcome it – especially once early voting began.

Voting begins
    On Monday, Statesboro police officers were stationed inside the polling place, which was later determined to be in violation of the rules governing polling places. As a result, three students contacted Jon Greenbaum at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, located in Washington D.C. Greenbaum, in turn, contacted Charles Lester from Georgia Election Protection, who agreed to represent the GSU students. Legal representatives for the NAACP were also notified and asked for assistance.
    In a press release, Lester stated numerous students reported police officer intimidation. One said an officer threatened him with a future ticket if he didn’t change his residence on his driver’s license. Another said she was forced to show an officer where she lived on a voter district map and then the officer attempted to prevent her from voting.
    Another complaint stemmed from Josh Garmon. He had gone to City Hall and saw District 3 challenger Bubba Propes to the east of city hall with a campaign sign on his convertible automobile. Garmon took a tape measure and measured the distance to the car as 131 feet, then complained to the officer, who took no action. The officer said at the time that poll workers had already marked the distance with a traffic cone and that Propes was outside the cone. However, the next day, the cone was moved about 10 feet farther.
    As a result of the three complaints, Lester issued a letter to City Attorney Sam Brannen and Election Supervisor Judy McCorkle advising them that officers may not act as poll workers. After Monday, officers were no longer posted inside – per orders by Chief Stan York – staying outside to primarily handle traffic related issues.
    Lester also sent a letter to the county registrar that expressed his “serious doubts the [citizens’] group will provide the necessary specific and individualized proof to establish the students are not residents of Statesboro or Bulloch County.” According to him and Greenbaum, this would be necessary to continue with the challenges. Georgia code states the burden to proof in an elector residency challenge rests with the person filing the challenge.
    Waters was asked on Thursday is she would withdraw the challenges should they not have an impact on the outcome of the elections. She said she did not have an answer at that time, but it would depend upon the advice of the group’s attorney.
    In one last act of contentiousness, flyers appeared at the various local restaurants and drinking establishment on Halloween night with the title “Save GSU Nite Life.” The flyers went on to state “the city is trying to close Dos [Primos], Retriever’s, Legends, Rum Runners & Rude Rudy’s.” A candidate was seen passing out the flyers while working last Wednesday at Retriever’s. Similar posters were seen hanging at multiple locations in Dos Primos.
    On Friday afternoon, early voting came to a close. At week’s end 926 people had cast ballots for the city election. By all standards, the drives and voter shuttles were successful in getting students to the polls.

Some hope
    There is one bright spot, however. The Herald learned Friday that representatives with the Statesboro Citizens for Good Government group and members from GSU Student Government – including VP Bryan Toles and President Jon Simpson – met to discuss the reasoning behind the groups’ challenges. In separate discussions with Waters and Toles, both said the meeting was amicable and professional. Both sides were able to address their grievances and discuss possible options to prevent miscommunication in the future. Waters even said she received a hug from one of the students at the conclusion of the meeting.
    Maybe something positive can come from all this contentiousness after all. We’ll find out Tuesday … or maybe not.
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