Lawyers file notice of appeal in Columbus County sheriff’s election dispute

Lawyers file notice of appeal in Columbus County sheriff’s election dispute

RALEIGH, N.C. (WECT) - It’s not over until it’s over. Attorneys challenging the outcome of the November election for Columbus County sheriff filed a notice of appeal Friday with the North Carolina State Board of Elections. They also plan to file a complaint and a Motion for a Stay of certification with Wake County Superior Court before the end of the day.

A central issue in their case is the eligibility of Jody Greene to run for sheriff of Columbus County. State law requires candidates for sheriff to reside in the county where they seek to hold office for one year immediately prior to the election. Shortly after the November election, Columbus County resident Gloria Smith filed a formal complaint protesting the sheriff’s election results due to irregularities on election day that she believed prevented people from voting. Smith later amended her complaint to include concerns about the actual location of Greene’s residence.

In April, the Columbus County Board of Election held a two day hearing to consider those complaints. Protesters noted that Greene’s alleged residence in Cerro Gordo was a recreational vehicle parked on his farm, but registered in South Carolina. They presented documents to the board showing no building, water, or septic permits had been issued to Greene to improve his land, and tax documents that showed the land was registered as farm land and that Greene told tax officials he didn’t live there. Protestors also noted he had actual homes in neighboring Robeson and Horry County.

Greene’s attorneys countered those claims with other evidence, including his Cerro Gordo mailing address, his billing history from Duke Energy, Greene’s status as a registered voter in Columbus County since 2012, and affidavits from dozens of Cerro Cordo residents swearing Greene did live on the farm.

In a split decision, the Columbus County Board of Elections voted 3-2 that Greene did not live in Columbus County as required by law leading up to the election, potentially clearing the way for incumbent Sheriff Lewis Hatcher to take back his seat. The State Board of Elections and the North Carolina Attorney General had previously said Greene should never have been sworn in until the elections protests were resolved, and that Hatcher should still be serving as sheriff in the interim.

In May, the State Board of Elections took up the case, and reversed the county board’s decision. While one state board member expressed serious doubts about Greene’s claims to live in Cerro Gordo, the four others voted that the county board erred, relying too much on their own opinion that Greene wouldn’t choose to live in an RV when he had much nicer homes nearby.

A written order issued by the State Board of Elections late last month states, “The [county board of elections] appeared to encounter difficulty in their efforts to consider that a candidate, determined to seek public office, may forego comforts and amenities otherwise available in order to establish timely residency within the district. A prospective candidate may choose to live uncomfortably, even when that person has ready access or even legal title to other properties.”

The State Board also seemed less concerned that Greene had not followed the proper channels with the tax office in classifying his land, nor obtained permits to develop his farm as a residence.

“That an act is prohibited does not establish whether the act has occurred,” an attorney for the State Board wrote in the order to issue Greene a Certificate of Election. "Though it may be unlawful for person to spend most nights on a park bench, State law would make that bench — and nowhere else — the voter’s residence for voting purposes.”

Because Smith filed her challenge regarding Greene’s residency after the election, the burden of proof to show he did not live Cerro Gordo, or conversely, did live somewhere else, fell on her. The State Board ruled Smith fell short of meeting that burden of proof.

If a formal protest had been filed challenging his residency before the election, the burden of proof would have fallen on Greene. A challenger in the Republican primary for sheriff, Mark Lewis, told WECT he also raised residence concerns with the Columbus County Board of elections before the elections were held, but said his concerns were ignored.

Tucker “Mack” Ward, the former member of the Columbus County Board of Elections, confirmed to WECT that Lewis did complain multiple times about Greene’s residency issues. He said another Democratic candidate for sheriff, Tim Floyd, also brought up concerns about Greene’s residency. Ward said both men were instructed many times of the proper channels for a residency challenge, including filing a written affidavit, and they chose not to do so. He said their lack of follow through is why the board did not pursue the residency concerns.

Friday’s notice of appeal in Wake County Superior Court could halt the proceedings to issue Greene a certificate of election as sheriff. Attorneys filing the motion allege the State Board of Elections incorrectly interpreted and applied the law regarding Greene’s residency, and therefore believe their decision should be overturned. It is not clear if the request for a stay will be granted by the courts, or how quickly this appeal could be heard in court.

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