Sherrod: I’m running

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 3, 2004

Despite learning that his home is located outside the city limits of Demopolis, Ben Sherrod said Friday that he still plans to run for mayor.

On Wednesday, Sherrod discovered that his home on Sherrod Forest Road sits just feet away from the city limit. Even worse for his chance at a fourth mayoral bid is that Sherrod’s homestead exemption is filed in the tax assessor’s office at the Sherrod Forest Road address.

A homestead exemption is important because a person is eligible to vote in public elections based solely on where the homestead exemption is filed.

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“I’m going to go for it anyway,” he said. “I’ve got a residence on West Jackson, and I can move back to that address.”

Sherrod said he sought the advice of City Clerk Vickie Taylor, who serves as the election official in her position.

“The city clerk can’t disqualify me from an election,” Sherrod said. “She has to give me the qualifying papers if I ask for them.”

Qualifying for the Aug. 24 election begins Tuesday, July 6, and ends Tuesday, July 20.

As Sherrod understands it, he may be eligible to run for city office if he plans to move back into the city.

“If I have the intention of moving back, I think I’m OK,” he said.

The Alabama League of Municipalities and the Alabama Attorney General’s office both disagree with Sherrod. However, that doesn’t mean Sherrod is fighting a lost cause. In fact, there may be strong legal precedent that allows Sherrod to seek the seat of mayor.

Lori Lein, an attorney with the League of Municipalities, said she could not offer a specific opinion about Sherrod’s case. However, she said an “intention” to move back into the city limits likely wouldn’t allow a candidate to legally qualify.

“You still must have residence at the home 90 days prior to the election,” Lein said.

The deadline for assuming city residence for the Aug. 24 election was May 26.

Lein deferred most questions to the Attorney General’s office, and spokesperson Joy Patterson said she could offer no opinion about Sherrod’s case. However, she referred to a number of Attorney General opinions that touch on the same subject.

One particular case may hold the key to Sherrod’s bid for candidacy, though it is mere speculation at this point.

In a March 20, 2000, ruling by former Attorney General Bill Pryor, a Tuscaloosa man questioned his residence for a board of education seat.

Rick Harbin, according to the ruling, lived in District 3 of the Tuscaloosa County School Board. During his term, Harbin began building a lakefront home. Eventually, Harbin put his current home — clearly located in District 3 — on the market.

When that home sold, Harbin sought the opinion of the board of registrars to make sure his new home was still in District 3.

“The Board of Registrars advised Mr. Harbin that this house also was located in District 3,” says Pryor’s ruling.

After Harbin moved, it was discovered that his home was just on the other side of the District 3 line, meaning he had vacated his residence and was ineligible to run for re-election to that seat.

Attorney General Pryor ruled that Harbin was given bad information, which should not have disqualified him from the race.

“It is the opinion of this Office, based upon the particular facts involved, that Mr. Harbin did not vacate his residence in District 3,” Pryor wrote. “Mr. Harbin moved to a new home after he was advised that the home was located in District 3.”

Further, Pryor’s opinion stated that Harbin’s intention to move back into the district should be taken into account.

“…Upon discovering that his home is not, in fact, located in District 3 he plans to move to a home that is located in District 3,” the opinion said. “It is the opinion of this office… that he is entitled to seek reelection in District 3.”

That ruling is largely similar to the case Sherrod faces. In his three previous runs for mayor, Sherrod has claimed his homestead exemption clearly within the city limits. Upon moving to his property along the Tombigbee River, Sherrod said he was informed by Tax Assessor Bo McAlpine’s office that his new home on Sherrod Forrest Road also was in the city limits.

Patterson warned that one AG opinion should not be construed to offer any definite resolution to another legal question.

“… Be careful about assuming your situation would have the same conclusion, because the facts or the law may be slightly different, even if it is not obvious,” Patterson said.

As for Sherrod’s next step, the potential candidate says he will qualify for the municipal election next week and then wait to see what happens.

In order to challenge Sherrod’s eligibility in the race, only three known people could do so at this point.

According to Lein at the League of Municipalities, opposing candidates would have to file a challenge to Sherrod if they don’t believe he qualifies to seek city office.

Patterson said such a challenge would take place in circuit court.

Cecil Williamson was out of town Friday and could not be reached for comment. Announced candidates Stephen Gutshall and Mike Grayson were hesitant to take up such a torch.

“I’m just going to have to wait and see,” Gutshall said. “I’ll reserve judgment until after qualifying ends, and then look at it. But for nnow, I can’t go on what I hear.”

Grayson echoed Gutshall’s remarks.

“I have to have more information to make a decision,” Grayson said. “I don’t know enough at this time to say.”

Editor’s Note: A story that appeared in the Thursday edition of The Times on this subject incorrectly stated the day Sherrod first learned he lived outside the city limits. Sherrod met with City Attorney Rick Manley on Wednesday, June 30.