FOREST PARK — Forest Park City Councilwoman Sandra Bagley has asked Clayton County Superior Court Judge Aaron B. Mason for a hearing on how Elections Supervisor Lois Wright handled a disqualified candidate’s application to run in Ward 3.
Wright, who had ruled that Patricia Manley was qualified to run, reversed her decision shortly before Bagley was to have held a press conference. Despite the decision, Bagley filed a request for Mason to review how the city’s appeals process was handled.
Wright sent a letter to both candidates informing them of the change Tuesday. Manley had hoped to challenge Bagley in the Nov. 5 election.
Bagley filed a challenge with Wright on Sept. 6, claiming Manley was not a legal resident of Ward 3. On Sept. 12, after some discussion as to whether the challenge hearing would be open to the public, local residents, city employees and Mayor Angelyne Butler gathered in council chambers to watch the proceedings. After half an hour, City Attorney Mike Williams announced the hearing would be postponed until Sept. 13.
The following day, both Manley and Bagley were present, along with members of the public. Bagley presented evidence that Manley had been evicted from the Evelyn Drive address that Manley listed as her residence on qualifying documents on Aug. 23. Bagley also alleged that Manley’s check for qualifying fees had bounced.
In a letter denying the challenge, Wright ruled that Manley appeared to reside at the Evelyn Drive address and continued to get mail there. “With respect to the eviction, it may have been Ms. Manley’s intention at some point in time to acquire a new residence,” but had not been removed “as of August 23, 2019 ... For these reasons, I conclude that Ms. Manley has met the residency requirement and Councilwoman Bagley’s challenge is denied.”
Wright noted that Manley admitted having been evicted, but that “her friend, Marquise Grace, had rented the house... and was allowing her to live there. This assertion was not challenged at the hearing.” In addition, Manley “stated that she was still receiving mail and paying utilities in her name at that address. She also presented copies of correspondence and bills she had received at that address,” as well as a letter purportedly from Grace.
State election law defines “residence” as “that place in which such person’s habitation is fixed, without any present intention of removing therefrom.” It also holds that “the mere intention” to move or “the fact of removal without intention” “shall avail nothing,” and that an election superintendent can consider where a person’s utility bills and mail go as residency evidence “for voter registration purposes.”
As for the bounced check, Wright said, state law holds that a candidate whose check bounces is disqualified “unless the bank, credit union, or other financial institution returning the check certifies in writing by an officer’s or director’s oath that the bank, credit union, or financial institution erred in returning the check.”
According to Wright, Heritage Bank returned Manley’s qualifying fees check Sept. 9. “On or about Sept. 10, 2019 I contacted the bank concerning this matter,” Wright wrote. “On Sept. 16, 2019, I received a letter from the Forest Park Branch Manager from Heritage Bank indicating that there were sufficient funds in the account as of Aug. 23, 2019 to cover the $612 qualifying fee, but that the deposit checks establishing those sufficient funds had been held.”
In response to an open records request, Wright supplied the News with a copy of a letter from the bank’s branch manager, Edward L. Taylor, verifying two deposits of $200 and $500 were made on Aug. 19 and were available as of Aug. 23, adding, “Deposit checks are held 15 days.”
When the News asked Manley about the alleged “inaccuracy,” Manley said, “They can’t say anything about my bank account,” and that she had already called asking them not to. “You know what? I don’t have any comment about anything.”
In her letter, Wright said that “neither the city nor Ms. Manley were aware of the return of the check until Sept. 9,” making it “impossible for Ms. Manley or the bank to comply with this regulation through no fault of their own.”
Wright stated that she would allow the branch manager’s letter to serve as a certification of error “(i)n the interests of fairness to the candidate and the voters of the city of Forest Park,” adding, “I am mindful of the fact that my conclusion with respect to the returned check is not in strict compliance with the regulatory guidance. Accordingly, I am prepared to follow the orders of any judge with respect to this decision.”
Bagley had questioned why Manley was allowed to submit evidence three days after the hearing.
”I had nothing official from Lois Wright and feel strongly I was within my rights to do so,” Bagley told the News. “If our city elections system is broken, it is high time we fixed it.”
Wright was appointed elections superintendent in 2015 when allegations of racial bias against the previous superintendent prompted an investigation by the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.