March 6, 2013 10:36:27 AM
Caledonia's municipal election is still three months away, but the temperature is already rising, with one of the two mayoral candidates alleging harassment and invasion of privacy since she announced her intent to seek the town's top spot.
Susan Bell spoke to the board of aldermen Tuesday night, expressing concerns over questions election commissioners have raised about her residency and right to vote in the upcoming election, which will be held June 4.
"Only when I decided to seek the office of mayor was I met with so much opposition from the election committee," Bell wrote in a letter she presented to the aldermen.
Bell said she offered to show homestead exemption documents to election commissioner appointee Ken Byars, but he declined.
To file for homestead exemption in Mississippi, residents must show their most recent tax bill or warranty deed, a driver's license, Social Security number and vehicle registrations -- all using the current residential address. Homestead exemption, which declares the address as the home owner's primary residence, is automatically renewed each year unless there is a change of address, title or marital status.
Bell alleges that an election committee member checked her utility bills, which she feels is an invasion of privacy.
"In reading state law, this has got to be harassment," Bell told the aldermen. "How many people have to put up with this for their right to vote?"
Mississippi Code 21-3-9 states the mayor and aldermen must be qualified electors of the municipality and residents of their respective wards.
Bell alleges she lives at 147 Lawrence Street, but Byars challenged that claim after Tuesday night's meeting, saying the Lawrence Street home is empty and Bell actually lives on Dodson Road, outside the city limits.
If Bell loses the election, her residency will be a moot point, Town Attorney Jeff Smith said, but if she wins, it will be incumbent upon the loser to challenge her residency.
So far, former Caledonia mayor Bill Lawrence is the only person besides Bell who has expressed intent to seek the mayorship. Lawrence served as mayor from 2005 to 2009, when he lost by five votes to current three-term mayor George Gerhart, who is not running for re-election. Qualifying ends Friday at 5 p.m.
Smith said the election commission may be making stricter requirements than those outlined in the state code.
"You've mostly got to have a heartbeat and not be convicted of a felony," he quipped.
Bell said she has no problem with proving her residency, but she is upset that anyone would invade her privacy by consulting with local utility companies.
"I'm at the point now -- what do I do, take them home to spend the night?" Bell asked. "Am I being picked on, or do we treat everybody this way?"
But Byars insists the election commissioners are simply doing their jobs, trying to clean the poll books, which he says have been "in error for a long time," rife with electors who have either died or moved away.
"One of the things we're trying to do this year is run a fair election," he said. "We've already met twice and gone over the poll books and tried to address issues we've had in the past about residency. That's all we're doing."
In water department news, the board unanimously agreed to have Smith send a letter asking Mississippi Public Service Commission officials to appear in Caledonia for a public hearing on water rates.
The town has been trying to pass an increase which would require customers using 1,000 gallons or less in a billing cycle to pay a flat rate of $7.25, with an additional $7.25 charged for every 1,000 gallons used. The rate increase is intended to repay a $2 million-plus debt incurred during infrastructure improvements required by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.
But the commission rejected the increase proposal as too low, recommending the aldermen ask for a 60-percent rate hike on customers' average bills, water superintendent Benny Coleman said. They also propose a flat deposit of $25 per customer. The water department currently charges homeowners a $40 deposit and renters a $100 deposit.
"Why would they be concerned about our deposits? What business is it of theirs?" alderman Quinn Parham asked. "The thing is, we owe a debt we can't pay for with our current income. The hope is once the debt is paid off, the rates will go back down. That's the way it should work. That's what you would hope. What's the alternative? If we don't get a raise, we end up having to sell out. You have to look 10 years from now when the money's run out and the debt's still ongoing."
The board also rejected 3-2 a request by water technician Trey Robertson to attend a conference in Jackson. Aldermen Brenda Willis, Mike Savage and Steve Honnoll voted against the measure after Coleman told them it would cost approximately $1,000 for Robertson and another technician to attend the conference, whereas they could get their training in West Point or Starkville for less money.
Robertson said it would be a good opportunity for him to talk with other technicians and learn new things -- something that was an issue for the latter part of 2012 after he filed a grievance alleging Coleman would not sign his water certification certificate even though he passed the required exam.
As of Tuesday night, Coleman had still not signed the document.
Gerhart disagreed with a follow-up motion to allow Robertson to attend a West Point or Starkville conference instead.
"The only problem I've got with this is ... Trey has gone and taken his test and not gotten certified yet, yet Benny wants to keep him around here close to save money. I'm not recommending this. Y'all can vote however you want to, but until Benny starts saving money around here, I'm not recommending it."
The motion passed unanimously.
Carmen K. Sisson is news editor at The Dispatch.
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