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Courtesy photo / Michele Peterson

This story was updated on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, at 6:19 p.m. with additional information.

In dual residency hearings, Hamilton County election officials ruled Wednesday that Chattanooga mayoral candidate Monty Bell could stay on the March ballot, but Michele Peterson did not qualify.

At the regular Election Commission meeting Wednesday, officials voted unanimously to remove Peterson from the ballot due to conflicting residency information.

Last month, the Times Free Press reported that Peterson changed her voter registration to one of about a dozen properties owned by her limited liability company in November. The address change signaled that she lived at The Betty, a Chattanooga event venue — rezoned from commercial to residential in November — owned by Peterson.

However, voting records showed she was registered at a Signal Mountain address when she voted March 2, which would likely conflict with a city charter requirement that candidates must live in Chattanooga for a year before being elected mayor.

Peterson, who told the Times Free Press Tuesday she wanted to withdraw from the election but still wanted to prove her residency to clear the air, told the commission that she has lived at The Betty since October 2019, and had simply forgotten to change the registration.

Commission Chairman Mike Walden said she was trying to have her cake and eat it too.

"After having voted in the March election, now that it's convenient, you want to change that. But you already voted in an election, that according to your own comments today, you weren't authorized for voting," he said. "Now you want to have it the other way and run in a city [where], less than a year ago, you said you weren't a resident.

"You can't have it both ways. At one or the other, you either committed a potential crime or are about to commit a potential crime."

The commission offered Peterson the opportunity to withdraw, relieving them of the responsibility of hearing the matter. Peterson and her attorney agreed.

However, Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins told the commission that since the candidate withdrawal deadline — Dec. 24 — was more than a week passed, Peterson couldn't legally withdraw.

"After the seven-day period, there are very limited cases in which someone can withdraw themselves," Goins explained, citing occupational, mental and other factors that can allow someone to withdraw.

"At this point, for her not to appear on the ballot, you're going to have to take a vote," he said.

Walden asked Peterson if she'd rather stay on the ballot or have the commission vote her off, but Commissioner Ruth Braly said that the commission needed to vote, not leave it up to Peterson.

The panel voted unanimously to remove Peterson from the ballot based on the residency qualification.

The Election Commission also heard a case brought by candidate Monty Bruell against candidate Monty Bell in which Bruell accused Bell, who is homeless, of not fulfilling residency requirements by listing the Community Kitchen as his residence.

The board decided that Bell met the guidance of the state for determining residency of a homeless voter and should therefore be allowed to remain on the ballot.

"Homeless is a unique situation," Goins said, explaining that the residency guidelines are different for homeless residents. "But that doesn't mean that you can't register to vote or can't run for office."

After the hearings, the commission approved the ballot, with Bell and without Peterson.

Members also accepted a letter from the state backing their handling of a failed petition brought by citizens in December regarding police oversight and hired Interim Administrator of Elections Scott Allen — who assumed the role in the fall after his predecessor was fired for alleged mistreatment of county employees — to hold the position permanently.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

 

 

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