By Keeli Parkey
Who will appear as the republican candidate on the August ballot for Unicoi County assessor of property is still up in the air after a meeting of the Unicoi County Republican Party Executive Committee was canceled.
The meeting, which was planned for 9 a.m. on Saturday, March 19, at the Unicoi County Courthouse, was scheduled in order to address the vacancy created by Margaret Seward’s victory in the March 1 county primary. Seward, who was a candidate for assessor, died in the early morning hours of March 1.
The meeting was canceled around 4 p.m. on Friday, March 18, after the Tennessee Republican Party expressed concerns about the process for selecting a candidate, according to Jim Buchanan, chairman of the Unicoi County Republican Party Executive Committee.
“Brent Leatherwood (executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party) called me and advised us to cancel the meeting,” Buchanan said.
Buchanan went on to say that the party is awaiting an opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General regarding the composition of the county’s executive committee.
Leatherwood had not responded to a request for an interview by The Erwin Record as of the newspaper’s press deadline on Tuesday, March 22. He told the Johnson City Press that the Tennessee Republican Party is also asking the attorney general for an opinion on the party’s bylaws regarding state election laws and “minor procedural issues,” such as the requirement that a public meeting is advertised.
“We have a few questions that we would like to have clarification about,” Leatherwood told the Johnson City Press. “It being the nomination, we feel it is best, in due diligence, we have all our questions answered before proceeding through with the nomination.
“We are seeking clarification from our own general counsel, the state Election Coordinator and the District Attorney General.”
Leatherwood also told the newspaper that the party has until 40 days before the Aug. 4 primary to nominate a candidate.
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In a memo addressed to Buchanan from Leatherwood and dated March 16, Leatherwood offered guidance to the county party for filling the vacancy.
“While TNGOP Bylaws are silent on the exact process for filling a vacancy, a precedent has been set for vacancies to be filled by a meeting of the county executive board where a simple majority vote shall be required to fill the vacancy in question,” Leatherwood writes. “Under these auspices, the county executive board shall meet as the county primary board.
“While nominations from within the executive board are admissible, any potential candidates must meet the bona fide Republican standards laid out in Article IX, Section 1 of the Bylaws and Rules of the Tennessee Republican Party.”
Leatherwood’s memo also outlined a list of requirements to be met for the county primary board to meet, including the meeting be open to the public. Others include: “Nominations for the opening shall be accepted from the floor (by members of the primary board). … Only those individuals nominated shall be considered. … To receive the Republican nomination, an individual must receive a majority of those present and voting.”
The memo also states that the primary board shall be made up of the county party’s chairman, vice-chairman, secretary, treasurer, immediate past chairman and two members of the state executive committee.
The members of the county’s executive committee included Buchanan, Debbie Tittle, Mitzi Bowen, Terry Haynes and Lynn Woodward. Members of the state executive committee are Sara Sellers and Kent Harris. The previous chair of the county party is Kristen Allen.
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Wayne Peterson, another candidate on the primary ballot in the assessor’s race, died on Feb. 16. Alan “Rocky” McInturff was the third candidate on the ballot.
The Unicoi County Election Commission convened on Thursday, March 17, and the five-member panel unanimously certified the results of the primary. The panel includes Tom Reeves, Paul Monk, Roland Bailey, Marvin Rogers and Bill Beckman.
“As you know, Mr. Peterson passed away, then Mrs. Seward passed away,” Administrator of Elections Sarah Bailey said during the March 17 meeting. “In both of those cases, I contacted the state coordinator of elections’ office. Once we have passed the ballot, it doesn’t change. It has been set and approved by the state. …
“When someone passes away and wins, you still certify whoever the winner is that was on the ballot and it effectively, immediately becomes a vacancy at that position,” Bailey continued. “If this were a general election, the vacancy would be filled by the County Commission; however, since this is a primary election, state law says the party has the right to choose the candidate.”
Election Commission members then reviewed a letter Bailey received from Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goings.
This letter states: “… when a party candidate dies, Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-13-204(a) allows the party who has lost its candidate to make a new nomination authorized by Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-13-203. According to Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-13-203(a)(1), a political parties may nominate candidates ‘by any method authorized under the rules of the party or by primary election under this title’.”
Also according to Goings’ letter, the party is not required to nominate a candidate for the Aug. 4 ballot.
“If the party chooses not to exercise its rights under the statute, the ballot will indicate that no candidate has qualified for the office of Assessor of Property,” Goings writes. “Realize that, in either event, Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-7-133 (i) allows a person to file a certificate of write-in candidacy no later than noon, prevailing time, the 50th day before the election. This deadline falls on June 15, 2016, at noon.”