Third Chattanooga municipal candidate appears to have residency issue

Mayoral contender Michele Peterson was registered to vote in Signal Mountain as recently as March

Michele Peterson / Courtesy photo
photo Michele Peterson / Courtesy photo

Chattanooga mayoral candidate Michele Peterson says she has "no primary residence," raising another question of candidate qualification in the March municipal elections.

Peterson, a local business owner, changed her voter registration to The Betty, an event venue in Chattanooga, in November, less than three weeks before filing paperwork to run for city mayor. The Betty is a 5,490-square-foot wedding venue that was acquired by M Squared LLC, care of Peterson, in 2016 and was zoned for commercial use, according to Hamilton County Property Assessor records.

The Betty is listed as an available event space on its Facebook and is listed as a vacation home on various short-term vacation rental and travel websites.

As recently as March, voter history documents show Peterson voted while registered to a residential address, also owned by M Squared, on Signal Mountain, outside of the city limits.

Asked about the voting documents, Peterson said she voted at the Holtzclaw precinct in March, then said she didn't remember voting in the election at all, and then said she has lived at The Betty since 2019 and had simply forgotten to change her voter registration.

"I just realized I hadn't changed it from the [Signal Mountain] address to the Holtzclaw address," she said. "It was just an oversight on my part."

Peterson said that while she lives in the city, she does not actually have any primary residence and that all of the properties she owns are commercially oriented.

"All of my property is commercially oriented. I don't have a primary residence," she said. "I'm a lot like the poor kids in the neighborhood, I stay places."

The address where Peterson was registered to vote in Signal Mountain is a 4,000-square-foot house listed on real estate records as a single-family home. She voted at that address in 2018 as well. In 2016, she voted at an apartment address in Chattanooga.

"I have been known to stay on the couch occasionally. And it's throughout our city that I do that, and I spend time in and out of our city because I do business nationally," she said. "So, you know, if somebody says she doesn't live in the city then I'm going to say prove it, and how you determine that visibility will maybe help someone else down the road."

Voter records show that Peterson did not vote in the August primary. She voted at The Betty address in the Nov. 3 general election.

Peterson says she spends "$150,000 a year, minimum" in the city and Hamilton County and suspects that "those types of things can speak for themselves as people make up their mind who they would like to have for their next mayor," but she welcomes the conversation about residency standards.

Peterson is the third local candidate this month to be subject to that same conversation.

At the beginning of December, District 5 City Council candidates sparred over whether or not one, LaDarius Price, lived in the district - or even the city - until Price withdrew after being pushed on documentation.

Similar questions entered the crowded mayoral race this week when candidate Monty Bruell filed a complaint about homeless opponent Monty Bell's paperwork, challenging his residency.

While the city's qualifying rule seems simple, requiring candidates be at least 30 years of age and live in the city for at least one year prior to their election, the definition of residency leaves candidates who are challenged subject to a hearing in front of the election commission to satisfy the somewhat subjective term.

Tennessee Code determining eligibility for voter registration defines a residence as "that place in which the person's habitation is fixed, and to which, whenever the person is absent, the person has a definite intention to return; provided, that a person may not register to vote using a business location as the registration address when the sole basis for the person's presence at such location is based on a business or commercial use.

"A person does not become a resident of a place solely by intending to make it the person's residence," it continues. "There must be appropriate action consistent with the intention."

To make that determination, the law doesn't establish a clear threshold, but says election commissions may consider these and "other relevant matters":

* The person's possession, acquisition or surrender of inhabitable property;

* Location of the person's occupation;

* Place of licensing or registration of the person's personal property;

* Place of payment of taxes which are governed by residence;

* Purpose of the person's presence in a particular place; and

* Place of the person's licensing for activities such as driving.

Scott Allen, interim administrator of elections for the Hamilton County Election Commission, was unavailable to comment on Peterson's residency or the commission's vetting practices on Wednesday, but said earlier this month that while voter registration changes sometimes lag, candidates are made aware of residency requirements when they file paperwork to run.

"That doesn't necessarily mean he [LaDarius Price] didn't reside there before he changed his voter registration to that address. Because, you know, people do that all the time - change voter registration whenever they get around to it," Allen said. "He was aware, when he qualified to pick up his papers, he was made aware of the residency requirements - like everyone is - being a resident of the district for at least a year prior to the election date."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at [email protected] or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.