Decision stalled in Port Gibson mayor’s challenge|[11/30/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 30, 2007

PORT GIBSON — Whether Fred Reeves’ name will appear on Port Gibson general election ballots as mayor-elect Tuesday remained in question today after 50 people gathered at the town’s City Hall and were dismissed without any answers Thursday.

A hearing had been called to determine the residency of Reeves, 60, who won the city’s Democratic primary Nov. 13 with 380 votes over incumbent Mayor Amelda Arnold, who received 192. There were no Republicans or independents in the election, meaning Reeves would normally advance to Tuesday’s ballot with no opposition and start a four-year term in January.

What apparently remains is for Arnold and her supporters to find the proper panel or court for her protest, centered on whether Reeves is a legal resident and was properly certified for the primary by the municipal Democratic Executive Committee. There was no quorum of that group for Thursday’s meeting and, separately, a state statute says certification of names for general election ballots is performed by a municipal election commission.

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Arnold, mayor for two four-year terms, said the protest was the result of a phone call she received that claimed Reeves had claimed homestead exemption — at least through 2006 — in Illinois, the state in which he lived before moving to his native Port Gibson several months ago. Homestead exemption filings give a person’s primary home a break on property taxes.

Kell Smith, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said today, however, the fact that Reeves has homestead exemption in another state is not enough to disqualify him as a candidate in Port Gibson. There are many factors in determining residency for voting and election purposes. “There’s not one silver bullet” that determines whether a candidate is a resident, Smith said.

Reeves claims his listing on Claiborne County voter roles since 1991 proves his residency and eligibility to run — and win — a municipal election. “That is sufficient proof. I never voted in any other jurisdiction,” he said, referring any other questions to his attorney, Bo Truli of Natchez.

Arnold said Reeves was asked to prove his residency before the primary, but provided “false” documents.

“He brought in a box of checks with a P.O. box on it and he brought in a water bill,” she said. “I did some investigating, and the water bill showed the water was turned on in 1956, which meant he was 12 years old. It was modified in 1983 when they moved to Vine Street. It was his father’s water bill. What he brought in — to me — is fraudulent.”

Reeves questioned Arnold’s timing in protesting only after she lost. “I ran eight years ago against Amelda, and she never contested anything,” he said. “Now, she lost — and by a little more than a quarter of the vote.”

Arnold claims her two terms in the mayoral seat have educated her on the laws.

“His homestead had never been challenged before. I know more this time,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily know that then. Since I became mayor, I’ve learned all that stuff now. Had this been done honestly and had he had the proper documentation to say he had moved back, this wouldn’t be an issue.”

Reeves is a retired educator from the District 211 Illinois School District in Chicago. He said during his campaign that he is an advocate for education and the elderly and he planned to provide more opportunities for youths in Port Gibson. He has run previously for mayor — in 1995 and 1999. He was defeated both times.

“I’m not a bad loser. But let me lose honestly and fairly — with people working within the law, not outside the law,” Arnold said.

A third candidate, Charlene King, received 130 votes in the primary.

Delores Mack, chairman of the city’s election commission, said the city’s Democratic committee, composed of five members, is now defunct. She said later that the decision of whether Reeves qualifies would ultimately be up to a judge — either through the county’s chancery or circuit courts.

The party “will meet with the (election) commission, who will present evidence. The party will look at the evidence and rule one way or another,” she said. “The final analysis will be done by a judge.”

Port Gibson city attorney Paul Winfield of Vicksburg said while the situation is rare, similar cases have happened. Mack said she and other commissioners have been taking “step-by-step” orders from the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office.

“They will look at similar cases and find a case that fits this case,” she said.