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Saturday, December 03, 2022

Alachua County elected officials’ residence requirement problem

Unclear legislation leads to continuous legal trouble

A lawsuit against Alachua County Commission Chair Marihelen Wheeler claiming she wasn’t living in District 2 during the Aug. 23 primaries marked the newest chapter of a continued countywide issue: officials potentially living outside the areas they represent in office.

Elected officials must live within the district they represent throughout their entire term, according to state law. In Alachua County, that rule is left largely up to the candidates to abide by, as there’s no formal body to hold all officials accountable for their residency.

The lawsuit against Wheeler was dismissed in circuit court Nov. 3. The suit was filed by Alachua resident Eugene Garvin.

Wheeler’s residency status came under scrutiny after Gainesville Sun reports found she filed a homestead exemption on a property she owned in District 4. Homestead exemptions are tax breaks only allowed on a person’s primary home.

She owns multiple properties, with one co-owned by her husband in District 4 and the other co-owned by her son in District 2. The issue came from a misunderstanding of homestead exemption requirements, she said. She paid back the fines prior to elections.

“That was my lack of knowledge of the way this thing was set up,” Wheeler said.

The lawsuit was dismissed, as state law only requires a county commissioner to fulfill residency requirements when they are elected, not before.

Wheeler is one of three other officials who have faced criticism for inconsistencies in their residency requirements. Former Alachua County Commissioner Mary Alford and School Board Member Diyonne McGraw faced similar concerns and resigned or were removed.

Alford resigned in May after a Gainesville Sun report found she was living outside her district. Her apartment, which was in the district, vacated after a buyout, and she struggled to find a new property there while caring for family members with health issues, she said.

McGraw was removed after a civil suit found she was living in District 4 while serving on the ACPS School Board for District 2, according to a Gainesville Sun report. McGraw was shown outdated districting maps, she said, causing the confusion.

“The process, the system failed,” McGraw said. “And I was caught in the middle.”

Wheeler’s homestead exemption payment incriminated her, Garvin said, and he felt the recent cases of officials disobeying residency requirements came from a lack of care.

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“It appears that there is a tremendous amount of apathy among the electorate in Alachua County,” Garvin said.

Garvin plans to refile his lawsuit if Wheeler is elected, he said.

Both parties' confusion is likely caused from both a lack of precise requirement language and

residency enforcement for officials in Florida.

While officials are expected to live mainly in the district they represent, primary residence is defined as “where a person mentally intends to make his or her permanent residence,” according to the Florida Department of State’s voter residency guidelines.

Proof of intent can be shown through documents that have the property’s address on it, from utility bills to voter registration.

Also, Alachua County’s Home Rule Charter, which acts as a local constitution, states commission candidates need to live in the district they represent, starting when they qualify to run for office rather than when they’re elected.

This distinction seems to contrast the state’s general precedent that dismissed Wheeler’s case.

Beyond language confusion, currently there’s no local government body in charge of enforcing candidate eligibility rules.

Aaron Klein, Alachua County supervisor of elections spokesperson, said the office only provides information and resources to candidates.

“Ultimately, it is incumbent on the candidates to make that determination,” Klein said.

While candidate oaths require those seeking office to sign, confirming they are eligible, there’s no official verification done to prove eligibility.

The supervisor of the elections office said it hasn’t changed protocol in response to recent residency requirement issues.

Alford, McGraw and Wheeler all said there was a historical precedent among officials locally or statewide ignoring residency requirements throughout entire terms, though specific officials were never named.

This culture, Alford said, made her believe temporary residence outside of her district was legal.

“It did give me some confidence that I could live outside of my district while I was finding another place to live,” she said.

Despite the resignation and removal of Alford and McGraw respectively, McGraw ran and won for District 2 School Board in August.

Alford and Wheeler are running for Alachua County Commission, with Wheeler running for District 2 and Alford for District 1. The general election is Nov. 8.

Contact Aidan at abush@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @aidandisto.

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Aidan Bush

Aidan Bush is a second-year journalism major and the city and county commission reporter for the Alligator. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Citrus County Chronicle. When not writing, he enjoys creating videos, water activities and spending time with his friends.


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