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TN House candidates face residency questions

7:00 AM, Jul 24, 2012   |    comments
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By Michael Cass and Nate Rau, The Tennessean

Jason Potts wants your vote in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary, and he's going to need it. After all, the House District 53 candidate won't be able to vote for himself.

Charles Williamson says he already cast a ballot for himself in District 50. But the Republican shouldn't have, based on Metro Codes documents and rulings that show he can't legally live where he registered to vote.

Potts, already a Metro councilman, does not yet live in the South Nashville legislative district he seeks to represent in the General Assembly. He's one of several candidates who haven't established residency this year in the districts where they're campaigning for voters' support.

"I do think it's important to live in the place you're going to represent," said Jason Powell, Potts' primary opponent.

But Powell had his own bit part in the game of musical homes that tends to play out every 10 years in the wake of redistricting by the legislature. He just moved to the district himself in March, after he had already picked up a candidate qualifying position.

The candidates have benefited from a timing quirk in state election law, which allows them to run from beyond a district's borders but requires them to live within them to hold the office.

Earlier this year, a Knox County judge removed state Senate candidate Shelley Breeding from the ballot over residency concerns. Breeding said her home was in Knox County, but the judge determined the border property was actually in Anderson County. A state appeals court upheld the ruling, and the Tennessee Supreme Court declined to consider the case further.

Susan Lynn, a former state representative running to reclaim the District 57 seat she held for eight years, now lives in District 46. Lynn has said lawmakers, including Rep. Linda Elam, who replaced her, redrew the Wilson County district to exclude her.

Candidates for state representative must live in the districts in which they're running by Nov. 6, the day of the general election, said Joan Nixon, deputy administrator of elections with the Davidson County Election Commission.

Lynn Greer, the election commission's chairman, said commissioners look into any complaints they receive about a candidate's or voter's residency and forward their findings to the district attorney general's office if necessary. He said there have been no complaints this year.

Occupancy permit hits new snags

The Tennessean last week revealed that no occupancy permit had been issued for Williamson's Goodlettsville property, which he listed as his residence when he registered to vote and filed his District 50 qualifying petition earlier this year.

Williamson subsequently applied for an occupancy permit on Friday. But his application has hit some snags. The renovated barn he listed as his residence is at least partially in what Metro Water Services categorizes as an unstudied flood zone.

That means a surveyor must determine if the barn is at least 4 feet above flood levels before an occupancy permit may be issued. Significant work could have to be performed to make it comply with stormwater regulations.

Williamson also must install an expanded septic system to obtain Metro Public Health Department approval for a residence. In 2003, he received approval for a septic tank to accommodate a small bathroom, not a more comprehensive septic system that a residence would require.

"The approval and installation is strictly for a restroom in a barn," health department official Brent Hager said. "There are notes all over the approval sheet (from 2003) that say this barn is not to contain any bedrooms or to be used as a living unit."

Williamson's campaign manager, Claire Ratliff, said Williamson received approval for plumbing, electrical and other permits in 2003. Williamson said he didn't know why an occupancy permit was never issued.

Although he owns a million-dollar mansion in Old Hickory, where he ran for another House seat in 2010, Williamson said he is still living on the Goodlettsville property despite lacking the proper permits there. Williamson runs a bison ranch at the Baker Road address, which he also listed as the home to his engineering business.

He said he already cast his ballot in early voting.

"I'm going to talk with Codes and see exactly what can be done here," he said. "There's been a mix-up somewhat administratively on the codes."

Williamson's residency isn't the only part of his public record under scrutiny lately. His Republican credentials have been questioned based on his votes in past Democratic primaries and a $500 donation he made in 2005 to state Rep. Gary Moore, the retiring Democrat he's now seeking to replace.

Planning to move, questioning rival

Potts, who has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, said his house at 3914 East Ridge Drive is about two blocks outside District 53. He said he'll move soon if he's "fortunate enough to win the primary."

"We were planning to move anyways," he said, noting that his wife is expecting a child soon.

Potts, in turn, questioned his rival's residency. Powell picked up a qualifying petition on Feb. 24, when he still listed 1007 Warren St., just north of downtown, as his residence. He said he moved to 371 Lynn Drive in District 53 the next month, leasing the house with an option to buy it later this year.

But to avoid confusion, he kept the Warren Street address - which he and his wife still own - on his petition when he submitted it on April 4, the day before the qualifying deadline.

Six days later, Powell changed his voter registration to 371 Lynn Drive. Potts said he doesn't think Powell legally lives there, noting that he doesn't own the property. But on Monday, Powell sent The Tennessean electric and water bills covering parts of June and this month. They were addressed to him at 371 Lynn Drive.

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