By Brad Hicks
The residency of a candidate vying for a seat on the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen has once again been called into question, four years after the matter was first addressed and just a little more than a month before the November election.
The Unicoi County Election Commission intends to discuss the most recent residency challenge concerning this candidate at a meeting to be held early next week.
Information was presented to the Unicoi County Election Commission office on Thursday alleging that Doug Hopson, current Unicoi vice-mayor and candidate for one of two four-year terms on the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, does not reside within Unicoi’s municipal limits.
A letter dated Sept. 26 and addressed to Unicoi County Administrator of Elections Sarah Bailey was included in the packet provided to the Election Commission. This letter states that because Hopson, who has served on the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen since 2004, resides outside of the town’s limits, he should be disqualified from being able to pursue the office in the Nov. 8 municipal election.
“Recently it has come to my attention that Mr. Hopson eligibility to run for Alderman in the Town of Unicoi’s November election is in question,” the letter states. “From all accounts he has resided at 1000 Quail Run since 2009 of which disqualifies him to run for office in the Town of Unicoi.”
The letter also provides several items that could be interpreted to serve as the basis for Hopson’s disqualification and cites a section of the Town of Unicoi’s charter that states, “No person shall be eligible for the office of alderman unless such person has resided within the ward for at least one year next preceding the election.”
The letter also cites the Tennessee Secretary of State’s guidelines for determining residency which, according to the Secretary of State’s website, is used to determine whether a person is a resident of Tennessee for the purposes of voter registration. As the letter presented to the Election Commission points out, one of the six items used to determine residency is that a person can have only one residence. Another is that the place where a married person’s spouse and family live is presumed to be that person’s residence, unless that person “takes up or continues abode with the intention of remaining in a place other than where the spouse and family reside.”
A factor that may be determined by the state in determining residence is the “place of payment of taxes which are governed by residence.”
“In 2009 Mr. Hopson purchased a home at 1000 Quail Run and later relocated to that residence from his previous residence at 170 Lakeview drive,” the letter states. “This property at 1000 Quail Run is within the city limits of the town of Erwin. Property tax information as of August 17, 2016 shows that the only property that Mr. Hopson owns and pays taxes on in Unicoi County is at 1000 Quail Run.”
Hopson’s residency was also questioned ahead of the November 2012 election. Unicoi resident Bart Ray contacted the Election Commission ahead of that election to state that while Hopson listed his residence as 108 Hopson Lane in Unicoi on his voter registration and qualifying petition paperwork, he actually resides in the Quail Run subdivision located outside of the town’s limits.
During a September 2012 meeting of the Unicoi County Election Commission, Hopson told members of the commission he has used both addresses in the past and was in the process of selling the Quail Run residence. He also said the Hopson Lane property has served as his homeplace for more than six decades.
Election Commission member Marvin Rogers at that time advised fellow commissioners he had researched the matter and consulted with District Attorney General Tony Clark, who in turn consulted Tennessee Assistant Coordination of Elections Beth Henry-Robertson. In a letter provided to the Election Commission, Clark wrote Henry-Robertson stated it is legal for a person to have two residences as long as one of them is declared their home. Rogers said Henry-Robertson further advised the residence associated with a candidate’s voting record indicates that candidate’s permanent residence.
The Election Commission would unanimously vote during that September 2012 meeting to grant Hopson certification to run in that year’s November election.
“When everything was said and done, they said everything was above board and you could have more than one property as long as you only voted in one place, and my voter registration is in Unicoi,” Hopson said Monday.
But the letter submitted last week to the Election Commission office said the Election Commission was not provided all of the information concerning Hopson in 2012.
“On February 15, 2012 Mr. Hopson and his wife signed a ‘Tennessee Residential Property Condition Disclosure’ form in preparation of trying to sell their 1000 Quail Run Property in which they stated ‘YES’ to the question ‘DO YOU OCCUPY THE PROPERTY,’” the letter states. “This document verifies that Mr. Hopson did live at 1000 Quail Run preceding the 2012 election and should have been declared ineligible to run for the office of Alderman in the Town of Unicoi. As of this date Mr. Hopson still resides at this address.”
On his petition to run for the alderman seat in the November election, Hopson listed his address as 108 Hopson Road in Unicoi. The letter states this property is listed as belonging to Vestel and Edith Hopson, Doug Hopson’s deceased parents.
Included in the packet is a copy of the Town of Unicoi’s charter and copies of documents provided by the Unicoi County Register of Deeds and Property Assessor offices, among other documentation, to serve as exhibits to the allegations.
“In summary all of the above items indicate that Mr. Hopson does indeed reside at 1000 Quail Run, in the city limits of the Town of Erwin, with his wife and did not qualify to run in the 2012 election and definitely does not qualify to run in this coming election,” the letter states. The Town of Unicoi Charter is very clear when it states that ‘No person shall be eligible for the office of alderman unless such person has resided within the ward for at least one year next preceding the election.’
“Since Mr. Hopson lives in the city limits of Erwin he does not qualify to vote or run for office in the Town of Unicoi elections. Additionally Section 6-3-103 of the Town Charter states ‘any officer moving from such officer’s ward, in the case of an alderman, or moving from the municipality, in the case of mayor, during the term of office shall be presumed to have vacated the office, and it shall be declared vacant and filled as provided in 6-3-107.’ This action did not occur when Mr. Hopson relocated from Lakeview Dr. to 1000 Quail Run as it should have. Per the above Mr. Hopson does not qualify to hold his present office of Alderman and does not qualify to run for Alderman in this November election.”
Current Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley, also a candidate for one of the two open four-year seats on the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, said he delivered the packet to the Election Commission office. Mosley, however, said he neither wrote the letter addressed to Bailey nor compiled the information contained within the packet.
The information was compiled by fellow Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen candidate Roger Cooper, who is vying against Billy Harkins Jr. to fill the unexpired term of former alderman Phillip Hensley, who resigned from the board earlier this year.
“There’s no way they can let him run this time,” Cooper said Monday.
Cooper added the Town of Unicoi’s charter and state guidelines are “clear” with regards to residency definitions and requirements. He said the information now in the hands of the county’s Election Commission spells out why Hopson should be disqualified as a candidate in the Unicoi race.
“The packet speaks for itself,” Cooper said. “It’s all there.”
The Election Commission was already scheduled to meet on Oct. 10 at 10 a.m. to inspect and seal voting machines for the November election but, on Monday, the commission announced it has amended its Oct. 10 agenda to discuss the information challenging Hopson’s qualifications to appear on the ballot.
Bailey said some voters have already cast ballots by mail. She said if the Election Commission determines that Hopson should be disqualified from seeking the office, new ballots with Hopson’s name removed would be sent to such voters residing within the Town of Unicoi.
“What we would do if we wound up in that situation, I believe the state would ask us to, of course, update the ballot, resend the ballots with explanations to all those voters who have already voted or to the ones we’ve mailed ballots to that haven’t returned theirs,” she said.
Bailey said if this move is necessary, only the race for the four-year term on the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen would be impacted.
“They wouldn’t lose their vote in any other race,” Bailey said. “Really, the only thing that would happen if Mr. Hopson’s name is removed from the ballot, any votes for him obviously wouldn’t be counted, but any other offices that they had voted for if they didn’t send in a new ballot would still be counted.”
Bailey said every effort would be made to give affected voters an opportunity to vote on the revised ballot.
“Obviously, we’ll have a much better handle on this when the Election Commission reviews everything on the 10th,” Bailey said.
Hopson said his situation remains unchanged from four years ago. He said his Quail Run property is still on the market and that he is at the family-owned property within Unicoi’s limits daily.
“Ninety percent of my time is spent in Unicoi,” he said.
Hopson said the most recent challenge to his residency is a “personal” attack launched by political opponents.
“Nothing has changed except I’ve been dedicating a lot more of my time to the town, and everybody knows that,” Hopson said. “It will show at election time who supports the town and who wants the town to keep growing and progressing, and the ones who are bringing it up are the ones that are against the town and trying to do away with the town.”