The date of Statesboro’s special election for the vacant District 5 City Council seat remains May 22, after the remaining four council members declined to take up a resolution changing the election to Nov. 6.
So, the candidate qualifying period is still this Monday at 8 a.m. until noon Wednesday, March 26–28.
Council members came into Tuesday evening’s meeting with a draft of the resolution, along with some ambiguous opinions from lawyers. By holding the District 5 city election on a ballot separate from the May 22 state and county primary ballot, the city is acting under an exemption in state law allowing a special election to be called a minimum of 29 days before the election date. Otherwise, a 90-day notice would be required.
However, the provision in the law allowing a special election on short notice if “conducted completely separate and apart” from the statewide election appears to conflict with another section, which requires that a special election appear on the same ballot as a regular primary or general election if held on the same day.
Bulloch County Attorney Jeff Akins, who advises the county Board of Elections and Registration, had opined that putting the city election on a county ballot to comply with the latter section would be “literally impossible” because Statesboro and the county have different precinct lines. Adopting Akins’ advice in a memo to the mayor and council, City Attorney Cain Smith said his only added opinion was “that there is significantly less chance of a legal challenge regarding a November election on those grounds as there is one less.”
Mayor Jonathan McCollar continued to urge council members to change their minds and opt for a Nov. 6 election.
“If we have it on May 22nd, then we’re dealing with a possibility of two legal challenges, whereas if we do it on November the 6th, we’re only dealing with one possible legal challenge. …,” McCollar said Tuesday evening. “I personally am of the mindset that I will go out to protect the city and put us in a less riskier situation, where I would much rather see us defend a situation that was impossible to avoid than for us to go and deal with a legal situation we chose not to avoid.”
But District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum remained as adamant for May 22. He asked what the “two violations” were, and Smith said these were only potential challenges, one being whether the city’s election is really “separate and apart,” and the other “the unavoidable one” regarding the requirement to place it on the county ballot.
Boyum also gave the other city officials an email that Kevin Rayburn, assistant elections director and deputy general counsel to Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, sent Monday in reply to Rep. Jan Tankersley, R-Brooklet. She had told Rayburn that a firm “can” or “cannot do” opinion was needed before Tuesday’s meeting.
Rayburn replied that the secretary of state’s office does not issue legal opinions, that being the role of the attorney general’s office. But having spoken to Bulloch County’s election supervisor and county attorney, Rayburn wrote that because the city and county precinct lines do not align, “the only option for a Statesboro special election is a separate and apart election unless the precinct lines are changed.
“Given that, regardless of whether the special election is held in May or November, it will be a separate and apart election,” he wrote.
“That being said too,” Boyum asserted, “if it has to be separate and apart, in May we do not violate, there would be no legal challenge for the 29 days because we have to do a separate and apart election.”
But McCollar pointed out that there was an additional possible challenge for May, as Smith had explained.
District 2 Councilman Sam Jones reiterated his position that most District 5 residents wanted the election held sooner rather than later.
“In talking to some folks from District 5, they’ve been saying the same thing, they’d like to have it done as soon as possible …,” Jones said, “and after doing some due diligence and talking to some county registrars and the legal, I realized that, hey, just like has been said, it can be a conflict no matter how it goes.”
McCollar asked if there was a motion to approve the resolution to change the election to Nov. 6. No council members spoke up. When McCollar asked if there was a motion to deny, Boyum commented that not floating a motion was the same as denial, and the mayor announced that the proposal had failed.
After the resignation of Travis Chance as the District 5 member, the council had voted 4-0 on March 13 to call the election for May 22.
District not unanimous
Not all District 5 residents wanted to have the election sooner rather than later. District 5 resident Ivory Watts, who has worked in several election campaigns and is current Bulloch County Democratic Party chair, spoke to the council March 13 asking that the election be held Nov. 6 to give more potential candidates a chance to decide.
“I just really think that it was planned this way,” Watts said Wednesday. “I think it would have been easier and more trustworthy had Councilman Chance said something in January or February, so it would have given people time to plan for it. It just makes it seem like they had somebody in mind who can turn up and pay the qualifying fee, and kind of keep the mayor from having a vote.”
The mayor votes in case of a tie, and having only four council members increases the likelihood of ties.
Watts named a candidate she expects to run and said he will be able to qualify for May 22. Candidates, who must be at least 25 years old and residents of the district for six months, will qualify in the city clerk’s office at City Hall between 8 a.m. March 26 and noon March 28. The fee is $227.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.