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Staff Photo by John Rawlston / Monty Bell prepares to enter the van where he lived, in this 2009 photograph.

A Chattanooga mayoral candidate is challenging the residency of one of his rivals — a homeless activist who has a similar name.

Monty Bruell — an entrepreneur and the first of 16 candidates to announce his bid for the March 2021 race to replace outgoing mayor Andy Berke — is challenging the candidacy paperwork filed by the homeless activist, Monty Bell.

In a complaint submitted to the Hamilton County Election Commission late Tuesday, Bruell, represented by local attorney Lee Davis, challenged qualifying paperwork, which lists the Chattanooga Community Kitchen as Bell's residence.

"I'm challenging his qualifications on the grounds that he lists the community kitchen as his residence. And while that is his legal mailing address, it is not his legal residential address," Bruell told the Times Free Press. "And so I'm making a distinction between his mailing address and his place of physical domicile."

Bruell said he tried unsuccessfully to contact Bell directly three times before going to the election commission. He said the issue isn't about picking on the homeless candidate, but a matter of clarity on the ballot and following procedure.

"I want to make the point that I am not challenging Mr. Bell on the basis of his being homeless. I fully support any homeless person who would like to seek public office. I believe that his paperwork was improperly completed," he said.

"And so I am challenging him on the basis for not having properly completed the application to run for public office. It has nothing to do with the fact that he's homeless."

Also, with just two letters separating the names of the candidates, Bruell says Bell's bid may be a source of confusion for voters.

"Primarily, I'm concerned that voters are going to be confused," he said. "The names Monty Bruell and Monty Bell are very similar. And quite frankly, it would not surprise me if this were an intentional attempt to create ballot confusion."

Bruell cites a recent Florida state Senate campaign and other races in which individuals with similar names to established candidates have allegedly entered but not participated in elections to create confusion and spoil outcomes.

"There were several phantom, or ghost, candidates whose names were on the ballot, but they never campaigned, no one really knew who they were," Bruell said. "They were put on the ballot by candidates to create confusion because the names are so similar to their opponent's."

"Is it really that coincidental that there would be a Monty Bell running at the same time that a Monty Bruell is running?"

Bell did not respond to a request for comment left with a member of his campaign prior to publication. Years ago, he told the Times Free Press he lived in his van. The community kitchen offers limited cold-weather shelter to homeless people and allows them to use its address to receive mail.

Bell has been in the public eye before as a recurring guest host on Channel 12's weekly show "Point of View," a frequent commenter at city council meetings and a plaintiff in several lawsuits against the state, city and the Times Free Press.

Interim Administrator of Elections Scott Allen said the election commission will now hold a hearing to allow Bruell and Davis to make their case and potentially remove Bell before the March ballot is finalized at the beginning of the year.

"Since this is a formal written complaint, the Election Commission will hold a quasi-judicial hearing to allow both sides to present their cases in an open meeting. They, along with the coordinator of elections, will make the decision whether or not Mr. Bell remains a qualified candidate after hearing all of the facts," he said Tuesday. "We will be sending Mr. Bell a certified letter to his address on file notifying him of this hearing. We are still waiting on the commission availability to set that hearing date but it's likely to be heard at the regularly scheduled meeting on Jan 13, 2021."

During a similar upheaval earlier this month when a candidate was pushed on his residency after qualifying to run in a Chattanooga City Council race while apparently living outside of the city, Allen said the commission planned to finalize the March 2 ballot at that same January meeting.

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

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