By Brad Hicks
Doug Hopson’s name will remain on the November ballot.
For the second time in four year’s, the Town of Unicoi’s Board of Mayor and Alderman candidate’s residency was called into question, and it was up to the Unicoi County Election Commission to determine whether voters residing within the town’s limits would have the option of casting their ballots for Hopson.
The Election Commission met on Monday to discuss the most recent challenge to Hopson’s qualifications and, in the end, Hopson’s place on the Nov. 8 ballot boiled down to intent.
On Sept. 29, Unicoi County Commissioner and Town of Unicoi alderman candidate John Mosley submitted to the Unicoi County Election Commission office information alleging that Hopson, the town’s current vice-mayor and candidate for one of two four-year terms on the town’s board of mayor and aldermen, does not reside within the town of Unicoi’s municipal limits.
Along with tax records, a copy of the Town of Unicoi’s charter and other documentation, the packet presented to the Election Commission included a letter which stated that because Hopson, who has served on the Town of 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’s eligibility to run for Alderman in the Town of Unicoi’s November election is in question,” the letter stated. “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 cited a section of the Town of Unicoi’s charter, which essentially states that no one shall be eligible for the office of alderman unless that person has resided within the town’s limits for at least one year prior the election in which he or she is seeking the office. The letter further cites the Tennessee Secretary of State’s guidelines for determining residency for the purposes of voter registration.
“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.”
The same question regarding Hopson’s residency was raised prior to the November 2012 election. At that time, Unicoi resident Bart Ray contacted the Election Commission 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 outside of the town’s limits.
During a September 2012 meeting of the county’s Election Commission, Hopson told commissioners he has used both addresses in the past and was in the process of selling the Quail Run residence. He also told commissioners the Hopson Lane property, which is listed under the names of Hopson’s deceased parents, has served as his homeplace for more than 60 years.
The Election Commission voted during its September 2012 meeting to grant Hopson certification to run in that November’s election.
Tom Reeves, chairman of the Unicoi County Election Commission, told fellow commissioners on Monday that while Hopson stated in 2012 his intent was to sell the Quail Run property he acquired in June 2009 and relocate to the Town of Unicoi, Hopson has not yet followed through. Reeves also said that since June 2012, nine properties in the Quail Run community have been sold.
“Reviewing everything that we looked at in 2012, commissioners, I see the intent he presented to us is not being fulfilled,” Reeves said.
However, when Reeves asked fellow commissioners if there was a motion to remove Hopson from the November ballot, none responded. Due to the lack of such a motion, Reeves said Hopson’s name will remain on the ballot.
After its was announced Hopson would remain on the ballot, Election Commission member Marvin Rogers made a statement.
“Do I feel that Mr. Hopson is being completely honest with this board? Not really,” Rogers said. “Do I feel that Mr. Hopson has made a strong attempt to move to Unicoi? No. But, at some point in time, we go to Mr. Hopson and ask him the question, ‘Is it your intent to move to Unicoi?’ And we have to take him as giving us an honest answer.”
Rogers also said that in 2012, Tennessee Assistant Coordinator of Elections Beth Henry-Robertson advised that intent was the “major force” on determining whether a person resides in a particular area, adding this sentiment was supported by District Attorney General Tony Clark. He said state officials also declared a candidate can have multiple residences as long as one is declared the candidate’s home.
“So I feel, within the law, I have to say Mr. Hopson is legal within his rights,” Rogers said. “I don’t say it strongly and I don’t necessarily agree, but I have to do what the law says, and I feel like that’s the only thing we can come up with.”
Reeves said Rogers’ statement reflected the consensus of the Unicoi County Election Commission. The panel’s chairman then asked the standing-room-only crowd packed into the Election Commission office’s conference room if they felt the commission had served them well in its deliberation and had been objective and reasonable. Reeves’ inquiry was met with a mixed response.
“Once a cheater and a liar, always a cheater and a liar,” one attendee responded in reference to Hopson.
Hopson was present at Monday’s meeting and was given the opportunity to speak after no motion calling for his removal from the ballot was made. He said his situation remains unchanged, as he has for years attempted to sell his Quail Run home and that realtors were in the process of showing the home while Monday’s meeting was being held, adding his intentions all along were to again purchase property within Unicoi’s limits and reside in the town.
“My intentions have always been to go back to Unicoi,” Hopson said. “I vote in Unicoi, and I’m out there helping out 90 percent of the time. Most of the people that are against it have helped or done one thing, not showed up for one meeting except lately, they have never volunteered for nothing, they’ve never been there to help us do nothing.”
Others in attendance were also given the opportunity to speak after it was announced Hopson would remain on the ballot. Current Town of Unicoi Alderwoman Kathy Bullen, who is seeking the office of Town of Unicoi mayor in the November election, said while she respects the Election Commission’s decision and thoroughness in addressing the matter, she said Hopson’s spot on the ballot is in “direct violation” of the town of Unicoi’s charter.
Resident Judy Ray questioned the decision not to call for Hopson’s removal.
“Is there something I missed? He wants to move back to Unicoi?” Ray said. “It’s not about your house being for sale. It’s about where you physically located yourself and your family, and he keeps saying, ‘I’m moving back to Unicoi.’ Does that mean I can come down here and tell this lady I’m going to live on Quail Run with my son and she’ll let me register and I can go vote in Erwin?”
Resident and Town of Unicoi volunteer Suzan Harkins, however, said Hopson spends a significant amount of his time in the Town of Unicoi.
“He has done so much for the Town of Unicoi, more than any two aldermen that I know, and I appreciate them all,” Harkins said.
Reeves said the state’s law with regards to candidate residency is vague and that the Election is “bound” to give Hopson the benefit of the doubt.
“I don’t know of any precedent that has been set in a Tennessee court that gives us any guidance beyond what we have now,” Reeves said.
“The key word of the entire law is ‘intent’ and, in my opinion, and I may be way out of line saying this, it’s a terrible law,” Rogers said. “It’s terribly written, it’s vague, it’s almost impossible for a lawyer to argue either side, I would think. I wish they would rewrite it but, as it is written, the only thing I can do – and I’ve read it two dozen times or more – the only thing I can do is look at that and, again, the key word is ‘intent.’”
The Election Commission took a recess after addressing the challenge to Hopson’s qualifications to appear on the ballot before addressing other business on its agenda. During that recess, Hopson told local media he was not surprised by the challenge but added he was also unsurprised by the outcome.
“I thought that was the way it would come out, because my only intention has always been Unicoi and they know that,” Hopson said, “and the ones that have brought this up have never been around to help out or do anything. I was just hoping and praying that (the Election Commission) would do what’s right. I think the commission did what’s right. Nothing new was in there, just the same people come election time come in there and try to stir the pot and do away with a lot of things we’re doing that are positive.”
Hopson also said he is currently looking at available property within the Town of Unicoi’s limits. He said, if anything, the latest controversy surrounding his residency has aided his campaign.
“It’s hurt the ones that brought this out,” he said. “I feel sorry for them in a way. They were trying to grasp at anything to do away with the things we’ve built up, and these people were never involved in anything until now.”
During the recess, Bullen said her stance is “nothing personal” but is about doing what’s right.
“This has been going on since 2009, moving from the Town of Unicoi to the Town of Erwin, 2012 residing outside of the Town of Unicoi, and now 2016 residing outside the Town of Unicoi,” Bullen said.
During the meeting, members of the Unicoi County Election Commission said state law supersedes the Town of Unicoi’s charter. Bullen questioned the point of having the charter if this is the case, as she said language in the charter would have led to both Hopson having to vacate his seat and would have prohibited his reelection bid. She said the town’s charter needs to be discussed at the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s Oct. 17 meeting.
“Our own mayor was part of establishing the Town of Unicoi and bringing the charter into play,” Bullen said, “and if the mayor’s going to disregard the Town of Unicoi charter, what point does the Town of Unicoi charter have? If we as a town are not going to uphold what we said we are going to do as a town, what’s the point?”