BLUE RIDGE, GA – As the Blue Ridge City elections moved into full swing, questions arose about the eligibility of candidates running for office. On Monday, September 25, 2017, council member candidate Jane Whaley faced a hearing to determine the legitimacy of her bid for City Council Post One.
Whaley, a long time business owner in downtown Blue Ridge and active participant at Blue Ridge City Council meetings, decided this was the year to run for council, but questions arose as to Whaley’s permanent residence which led to an investigation and ultimately a hearing to decide the matter.
The hearing was scheduled for 10:00 A.M. on Monday morning, and supporters of Whaley filled City Hall to be present for her hearing. The hearing was to be held in a front room of the City Hall building with little room for supporters to be in attendance.
However, Whaley’s attorney, Frank Moore, asked that the hearing be moved to a larger area, but City Attorney David Syfan declined.
Moore replied, “As I understand it, the Hearing Officer here is Ms. Gerald.” He went on, “I believe that Ms. Gerald should be making these decisions. Now, if you are going to counsel her on that, I don’t know that I can stop that, but I think she should be the one that answers the question.”
After receiving counsel from Syfan, Gerald decided not to move the meeting. It was discovered that Syfan had anticipated the supporters and arranged ahead of time with Assistant Poll Manager Rebecca Harkins to conduct a lottery for the remaining six seats in the room.
Feeling that this was a biased move against Whaley and noting that it was a public hearing, Moore told supporters to come into the room. One by one supporters filled the room carrying their own chair and seeming unfazed by Syfan’s objection to that many people being in the room.
The argument for the legitimacy of Whaley’s residence depends on the interpretation of the law. Syfan cited that in order to be a resident a person must occupy the home in which they are claiming. Moore argued that Georgia law says that residency is subjective, and it is the intent to live in a home that qualifies the person as a resident.
The City presented their evidence first. Numerous documents were submitted that showed a previous address of Whaley, including a driver’s license with an address that is in Fannin County but outside city limits.
Among the documents was a complaint filed to the Poll Manager from a citizen regarding concerns of Whaley’s residence. Moore motioned for this document to be dismissed.
He noted that nowhere in the note did it mention Whaley by name, nor was it signed. Poll Manager Gerald also confirmed the the complaint had been filed after September 8, which was the final day to file such notices.
After conferring with Syfan about the legalities of the complaint, Gerald decided to keep the note in evidence to have a complete file, but it would not be referenced in her final decision.
Syfan called two witnesses to support evidence of his case. The first witness called was Jane Whaley. Syfan presented numerous documents associated with Whaley that displayed an address outside of city limits.
He asked Whaley about the amount of time she spent at the apartment located on East Main Street. Whaley answered that while she has never slept there, she is there on a daily basis and has hosted get togethers as well as just having friends over for visits.
Whaley explained the home her and her husband own at the lake is not geared for someone who is getting older. She claimed that the apartment downtown was meant to be their retirement home and was built as such with wider door ways and level access.
Whaley stated that the only obstacle that had prevented her and her husband from moving into the home was a halt to construction until a variance could be obtained.
The second witness saw City Street Supervisor Mark Clemmons come to the table for testimony. Clemmons had been to the property to conduct an inspection while in the early stages of construction.
He acknowledged that he had known that there was intent for an apartment to be built on site, but said, “I didn’t know who was going to live there.”
Whaley’s attorney Frank Moore presented evidence in Whaley’s defense. He, too, presented numerous documents showing the East Main Street property as her current address instead of property owned by Whaley outside of city limits.
Many affidavits were read on Jane Whaley’s behalf. Some of these came from friends, others from designers and contractors, all concurred that Whaley had planned on making the apartment her residence. Many of the affidavits confirmed that these were in fact Whaley’s plans for the property for at least two years.
Moore also pointed out that both Jane Whaley and her husband Bill Whaley are registered voters in the city as of 2015. He stated, “To me that should end the inquiry.”
Syfan closed his case stating that Whaley had failed to physically reside at the apartment located on East Main Street. He commended Whaley on her honesty and said, “She would make a great councilmember in 2021.”
Moore revisited that the proof of residency is in intent. In closing he cited an example of a person about to move into a home, but their home burning down. He stated that that is essentially what happened with the Whaley’s when construction was forced to a halt.
Both Syfan and Moore urged Poll Manager Barbie Gerald to reach a decision before adjourning, but Gerald declined stating that she would like time to closely review all of the evidence.
Moore made one final motion before adjourning, asking that Syfan not discuss or give legal advice to Gerald without his presence before the decision was made. Moore felt that this would be a conflict of interest and feared that it would create bias against Whaley.
Syfan declined stating that his job as City Attorney is to advise any city employee. In a brief heated exchange over that matter, Syfan stated to Moore, “I will advocate whether your are there or not.”
Gerald agreed with Moore on the matter, and stated that she would not seek counsel from Syfan until a decision was made.