As early voting ended Saturday and voters ready to head to the polls Thursday, a Hamilton County judge has ruled against a lawsuit challenging Cleveland, Tennessee, millionaire Allan Jones's residency qualifications to run for Cleveland's District 5 school board seat.
The suit contends the Jones home on Anatole Lane NE on the northern city boundary is just outside the city boundary and therefore renders Jones, the Republican nominee, unqualified to seek the District 5 seat, according to court documents.
The suit was filed by George Nerren, Bill Burch and Carrell Van Deacon, supporters of Jones' Democrat opponent, Jodi Riggins, a physician's assistant who said last week she was seeking the seat because Tom Cloud decided not to run for re-election. The suit names the Bradley County Election Commission and Jones as defendants.
Riggins is not a party in the suit, although Nerren is listed as her campaign treasurer on financial disclosures filed at the Election Commission. The case was moved to Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Kyle Hedrick's court after Bradley County judges recused themselves, according to court records.
The ruling was that Nerren, a city resident, doesn't live in the city school board's District 5 and therefore had no standing to raise the residency issue, ironically, because of where he lives.
Riggins said Thursday in a phone interview she thinks it could still be a valid issue.
Hedrick dismissed the case without offering an opinion on the issues raised, according to an emailed letter from Nerren sent Sunday to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
"The court dismissed the case based on procedural issues," Nerren said. "The court did not rule on the fact that Mr. Jones did not meet the residence requirement."
In his letter, Nerren contends that because the Jones home is on the other side of the line, Jones has been voting illegally in city elections and that his company, Creekridge LLC, has been paying the county for fire protection of the home, indicating its official location. He also contends Jones' company isn't "a natural person" for the purposes of determining who is paying the taxes or running for office and felt the county's Election Commission should have been more active on the matter.
Nerren said even if Jones is elected, he could be removed later by court order in an ouster suit that he contends could jeopardize any decisions made by a board that include Jones as a member.
Jones said Friday in a phone interview the suit has no merit and that's why the Election Commission didn't take up the matter either when Nerren raised the challenge there over previous months.
"I've been voting in the city and my address is a city address. I live on 2,000 acres, so part of my property is not in the city and a lot of it is," Jones said of the home where he has lived since 2002.
"I am the biggest city taxpayer in Bradley County. I paid $215,000 last year," he said, maintaining he has made his residency clear.
"There's a provision in the Tennessee code that says if a municipal line crosses - like for farmers - before it gets to your house, then you can make a one-time election to vote in that section and be part of the city if you want to," Jones said.
"You have to have more than $1,500 a year in income (from agricultural operations) for the past three years, and we have several hundred thousand a year. We have horses, and we sold $400,000 in horses last year - it's a big operation," he said. "The purpose of that law is for situations like this."
He said that although the house lies in the county and he doesn't pay city taxes on it, he has standing to run for the District 5 seat because of his choice to make the one-time election to vote in the city.
Jones contends Nerren's suit has no merit whether the plaintiffs have standing or not.
"They filed over 200 pages, and I think we filed like four or five pages; we got up and argued for four or five minutes, and they argued for over an hour, and then he just dismissed the case," Jones said. "He dismissed it because George Nerren had no standing to bring the case."
The plaintiffs can appeal the ruling, both Jones and Riggins noted during last week's interviews.