'The press doesn't hush.' Reporter confronts mayoral candidate after he walks away from news conference
The judge hearing mayoral candidate Beth Harris’ appeal of the local elections board’s rejecting her challenge to rival Zeph Baker’s residency quickly upheld the board’s decision Tuesday.
State law required Tift County Senior Judge Gary McCorvey to rely solely on the record of an April 5 meeting of the Muscogee County Board of Elections and Registrations, which voted against disqualifying Baker based on his having a homestead exemption in Newnan, Ga.
Harris since has uncovered other evidence from Coweta County court filings indicating Baker shared the Newnan home with wife, Sharon Cosby, who in divorce filings and a petition for a temporary restraining order asked for exclusive use of the home she and Baker bought at 40 Lantana Way.
But McCorvey under the law could not consider new evidence in hearing Harris’ appeal, and Georgia Supreme Court precedent holds that a homestead exemption cannot be the deciding factor in determining a candidate’s residency.
By law the elections board also had to consider other factors such as “where the person receives significant mail such as personal bills,” and “financial independence, business pursuits, employment, income sources, residence for income tax purposes, age, marital status, residence of parents, spouse, and children, … leaseholds, sites of personal and real property owned by the applicant, motor vehicle and other personal property registration.”
Baker on April 5 showed the board utility bills and other correspondence as evidence he lives at 1091 Bolton Court, the address he listed on his notice of candidacy.
Harris argued Tuesday that the board shirked its duty when it did not further investigate evidence of Baker’s residence, and instead approved a motion from Linda Parker, the board’s local Democratic Party representative, whose motion to reject Harris’ challenge was phrased as, “I say let the voters decide.”
It’s the responsibility of the elections board, not the voters, to decide a candidate’s residency, Harris noted.
Said McCorvey: “At the very least, the motion was inartfully phrased.” But the board chair, Margaret Jenkins, clarified Parker’s motion to say the board would be voting to reject the challenge and leave Baker in the race.
In explaining his reasoning under the law, McCorvey noted the state Supreme Court ruling against using only a homestead exemption to decide residency and requiring that all factors in the statute be considered.
“The court finds the board did consider all the other factors,” he said.
Candidates are allowed to own residential properties in other places, though they must declare a home, he said: “You can have more than one residence, but you can only have one domicile.” And in Georgia, “your residence to a large part is where you say it is,” he said.
A more dramatic scene ensued outside the courtroom afterward, as Baker held a news conference during which he called Harris a “bully” and alleged that if elected, she could not be trusted with residents’ personal information, then retreated with his supporters to a Government Center elevator when Harris and reporters started asking questions.
“I am a resident of Columbus, and my residency again has been confirmed,” Baker told reporters, calling Harris’ complaint “deceitful and disrespectful to the voters and a complete misuse of taxpayers’ time and money.”
He repeated previous allegations that Harris was using the residency challenge as a campaign strategy.
But when Baker finished his speech, and Harris was the first to ask a question, he turned for the elevator, with reporters and photographers following, some asking questions as he exited with his followers.
Harris afterward said he had anticipated McCorvey’s ruling, though she still feels the elections board should have examined other evidence.
“Had they done further investigation, they would have found easily what I have presented since that hearing,” she said. “I am not surprised that this happened. I am disappointed for the city.”
Baker told the board April 5 that he and Cosby met in Atlanta, where she works, and they bought the house in Newnan so that she could commute from there while he maintained his home in Columbus.
Harris has cited these documents as evidence Baker lives in Newnan:
▪ A March 30, 2016, petition for a temporary restraining order, in which Cosby wrote that Baker is a resident of Coweta County, where the court could serve him papers at 40 Lantana Way. She further stated she and Baker were “currently living in the same household.” Her petition said she was dependent upon that residence for shelter and asked the court to order Baker to vacate it. A judge’s order said Baker’s children could remain there while attending Northgate High School.
▪ An April 17, 2018, divorce complaint titled Sharon Cosby Baker v. Zephaniah Dwayne Baker, which said Zeph Baker “is a resident of Coweta County, Georgia, or has been within the past six months” and that Baker may be served notice of the complaint at 40 Lantana Way.
▪ What Harris says is a Jan. 1, 2017, affidavit bearing Baker’s signature above his printed name and address. The address listed is 40 Lantana Way.
Early voting for the May 22 election already is underway at Columbus Citizens Service Center, off Macon Road at 3111 Citizens Way. The other candidates for mayor are Danny Arencibia, Charles Roberts, Winfred Shipman, and Berry “Skip” Henderson.