Questions about one candidate's residency in a crowded Chattanooga City Council race have spurred threats and an investigation by the county election commission.
Cempa Community Care Outreach Coordinator LaDarius Price is one of six people running so far for the District 5 council seat to replace Councilman Russell Gilbert, who is running for mayor in the March 2021 election.
But some are challenging Price's city residency and therefore his eligibility as a candidate.
Another candidate lodged a complaint with the Hamilton County Election Commission this week, alleging that Price — a self-proclaimed "District 5-lifer" who is registered as a resident of the Woodmore neighborhood — doesn't live in Chattanooga at all.
"We checked our records and [Price] registered at an address in our system back in, I want to say June or July, at an address in District 5," Hamilton County Election Administrator Scott Allen said Thursday, the day after he says another candidate complained to the commission about Price's residence.
Under the city charter, a candidate for council must have lived in the district for which they are running for one year prior to the election date. In this case, Price, who regularly posts videos and photos with his family outside of a home in Ooltewah to his public Facebook page, is being accused of falsely registering to vote within the district just a few months before the election.
"That doesn't necessarily mean he 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."
After receiving the complaint, the election commission asked Price to verify his residency, and he provided a lease at the Woodmore house dated 2019, a utility bill and a driver's license, which all reflect a Woodmore address.
"I wouldn't be running for it if I didn't," Price said when asked if he lives in District 5, then confirming the election commission's timeline of the complaint and his answer. "You'll be able to tell how irritated I am because I've been dealing with these things that I ran, since I announced that I'm running."
Then, he brought up opponent Dennis Milton Clark, who he accuses of repeatedly driving by his house.
"Dennis Clark is running, and he's come by my house numerous times to the point where it's like borderline, to the point where, when I got a wife and five kids and you keep coming by my house, it makes me get defensive, and I got to protect my family," Price said. "He's borderline to the point where I don't even care about running, per se, because I'll end up hurting him. That's the place he's getting to."
Clark denied ever visiting Price's home and condemned his opponent's threatening language.
"I do not know LaDarius. I have never met LaDarius, nor have I ever been by LaDarius' house. I think it's very unfortunate for LaDarius to stoop so low to threaten another council candidate," Clark said. "As for me in my campaign, we are going to stay focused on running a clean race and creating opportunities for all Chattanoogans. We will not get sucked into the drama of his residency issues.
"I think he's just upset that his fraud has been exposed and he's taking it out on me."
When asked about his association with the Ooltewah house, Price answered indirectly.
"My question to them, first of all, is, we're talking about Facebook. You're talking about social media. You can live and be anywhere you want to be on social media. I can check in on social media and say I'm in Montana, and it will say I'm in Montana," he said about the home where he has been regularly posting public photos and videos for over a year. "To me, you saying I'm filing a complaint, not because this is something factual that I know but because of you following me on Facebook and this is where you're seeing, that this house, I could be at a different house every day taking pictures with my family."
Nicolas Lopez, the owner of the 2,280-square-foot house in Ooltewah, told the Times Free Press that Price and his family currently live in the house in question, which is not within Chattanooga city limits, and have for two years.
Asked if he had ever lived at the house, Price said, "No."
Asked what his connection to the house was, he said, "Nothing."
"Do I need to have a connection with a place that I'm being photo — or that I'm posting photographs in," he said. "I've posted three photos at Brainerd High School."
After being asked by a reporter about the social media postings at the Ooltewah house, Price deleted at least one photograph of himself, sitting on the front porch in 2019.
"I'm running a campaign to win. I'm not slandering anybody. That's what I'm doing. So I suggest that he do the same thing," he added, again referring to Clark. "And even when he does a written complaint, and we go before the board, it's going to be the same thing. I'm going to turn in all the same information that I've turned in, and I'm going to say that I lay my head at [the Woodmore address]."
When asked, Robert E Coleman Jr., the owner of the 1,300-square-foot Woodmore house where Price claims residence, said Price and his family do rent the house from him. However, he says that Price began renting from him 6-7 months ago, which does not match with the 2019 lease apparently obtained by the election commission and fails to meet the charter residency requirement of one year.
Unsatisfied by Price's answers, Clark says he and his team will continue to research the matter and make an announcement Monday on whether they intend to pursue a hearing with the commission.
"We have reason to believe that LaDarius lives outside of the district based off his voter registration information that conflicts with the city charter that says you have to live in a district one year prior to the election. Based off that information, we'll be asking the electoral commission to look into this matter further," he said. "According to neighbors, including the neighborhood association president, LaDarius is not a known or visible resident in this community. I think if a candidate who does not live in the district tries to get on the ballot, [that] compromises the integrity of the election.
"And furthermore, after we look into this further and we believe that he does not live in the district, we'll ask the state of Tennessee to look into issues of voter fraud."
If the written complaint is filed, Price and Clark would present their respective evidence at an in-person hearing before the ballot is finalized.
"If someone is not happy with that, they can file an official written complaint to the election commission, which will trigger a quasi-judicial hearing that the commissioners themselves and the coordinator of elections will be involved in and have an actual hearing and have both, both parties present," Allen explained. "That hearing will just have to be held sometime before the Jan. 13 ballot approval meeting that is already currently scheduled."
Clark and Price are the only two candidates in District 5 — which includes the Woodmore, Bonny Oaks, Dalewood, Eastgate, Kings Point and Lake Hills neighborhoods — to have officially qualified for the ballot to date. The qualifying deadline is Dec. 17, and several others have expressed an interest in the seat.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.
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