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State says Haynes, all BOE members are valid residents

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Norreese Haynes says he expects to regain his seat on the fractured Clayton County school board from which he was ousted a month ago amid a controversy over his residency.

Thursday, not only did Secretary of State Karen Handel's office verify Haynes' Clayton County residency, it certified the residency status of all school board members.

"... we found no evidence that any of the Clayton County Board of Education members are currently in violation of the statutory requirements relating to eligibility," Handel said in a cover letter to Gov. Sonny Perdue, who requested the investigation in February.

The report is a blow to allegations Haynes never lived at the Morrow address he used to win his district seat. It could also lead to the reversal of any action the board took against Haynes last month.

"I knew the whole time that I was a legal resident of Clayton County," Haynes said Thursday.

Haynes was removed from office by his fellow board members on March 3, after a Clayton County Police investigation determined Haynes did not live in Clayton County. Police said it appeared he lived in Marietta.

"What was done to me was done ruthlessly and illegally, but my Christian faith teaches me to forgive, and I forgive those who meant to harm me," Haynes said.

The residency of Clayton school board members was called into question amid calls for school board members to resign during the district's battle with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) over the loss of accreditation. SACS described the board as dysfunctional and laid the loss of accreditation at their feet.

Confirming the eligibility of the board members was one of nine mandates from SACS, which will revoke the school system's accreditation on Sept. 1 if all of the mandates are not met.

Residents and local leaders have called on all of them to resign. Some have heeded the call, Haynes and five others have not. However, he was the first to leave the board when it was determined by Clayton police that he was not a local resident when he ran for office in 2006. That finding is now being called into question by Haynes.

On March 3, it was the findings by the Clayton County Police that led to a vote forcing Haynes from the county's nine-member board.

Friday, Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, who authorized the police department's investigation of the entire board, stood by the report on Haynes, and his March 1 request to the other board members to remove Haynes from office.

"We offered to work with them and share our findings, but they turned us down," Bell said. "I have read the report our police officers did, and I am confident we did the right thing concerning Norreese Haynes."

Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner said his department is still investigating the residency issue.

"I'm not saying we won't reach the same conclusion the state reached, but we still have a lot of evidence to look at," Turner said.

Haynes was voted off the board at the request of chairperson Ericka Davis following information from police that he never lived at a Morrow address he used when he ran for his board seat in 2006.

"By factual evidence, and by state law, I moved to declare this seat vacant," Davis said during the ouster vote. She was backed by board members Eddie White, vice chair, Rod Johnson, David Ashe and Yolanda Everett. Oppose Haynes, Sandra Scott and Michelle Strong. Lois Baines-Hunter abstained.

A hearing will take place on May 5 in Clayton County Superior Court to review an injunction Haynes filed to stop a July 15 special election to replace him.

Meanwhile, if Haynes is returned to the board, he will find two of his colleagues no longer there. Both Davis and White, the board's chair and vice-chair, have heeded citizen calls to resign. Johnson has indicated he will resign, but won't say when.

In reaching the residency findings, Chris Harvey, the state's deputy inspector general, reviewed driver's license information, police reports, qualifying documents and interviewed board members.

The report acknowledges Haynes has rented an apartment in Marietta since December 2006, but Harvey cites Georgia code 21-2-217(a)(8), which states, "No person shall be deemed to have gained or lost a residence by reason of such person's presence or absence while enrolled as a student at any college, university, or other institution of learning in this state."

Haynes has been attending classes at the University of Phoenix campus in Marietta since November 2004, according to the report.

The report also cites Juan Green, who is identified as Haynes' roommate, as saying "Mr. Haynes had slept at the apartment approximately 10 to 15 nights" over the last three and a half years. Haynes was not identified on a January 2007 application for residential utility service for the apartment, according to the report.

The report questions the methods used by the Clayton County Police Department during its investigation of Haynes' residency.

Harvey reviewed a recording of an interview police investigators conducted with Natasha Barnes, who lived at the address Haynes used when he ran for his seat on the board. Initially, Barnes told Clayton County police officers she was Haynes' girlfriend, but she then changed her story to say Haynes never lived at the address.

Barnes later told Harvey she was forced to change her story by the police, whom she alleged had threatened to take away her children, and make her face charges.

After Harvey reviewed the audio-recording of the interview, it was apparent "the investigators did warn Ms. Barnes against committing a crime could affect her family by making false statements to the investigators. The conversations, however, do not sound coercive, and in fact they are punctuated with laughter and joking by both Ms. Barnes and the investigators."

As a result, Harvey determined Barnes' statements are "inconsistent to such a degree that her credibility should be very carefully questions and considered."

Two other people who live at the Morrow house told Harvey the former board member lived at the address "at least on a part-time basis."

The Clayton County police spoke with a manager at the apartment complex in Marietta, who told their investigators she "usually" saw Haynes at the apartment. Harvey tried to speak with the manager, but she refused to meet with him.

Harvey said he never found evidence Haynes changed his domicile to anywhere else besides the Morrow address.