A contentious residency challenge devolved into a shouting match outside the Sampson County Board of Elections Thursday afternoon, at the tail end of a two-hour hearing at which the Garland residence given by town commissioner hopeful John A. Jones was disputed by many in attendance.
Jones, who was one of seven people who filed for one of Garland’s three open commissioners seats, gave an address of 52 N. Bladen Ave., Garland, at the time he filed.
Randolph Smith filed the objection of candidacy regarding Jones, saying he was not a Garland resident. In his two-sentence handwritten statement, Smith deemed the Bladen Avenue residence given by Jones a “bogus address.” A letter from Clara Robinson, as succinct as Smith’s, stated that she owns the duplex at 52 N. Bladen Ave. and did not know Jones.
During the Thursday hearing, the board considered evidence by both Jones and challenger Smith, and half a dozen others who were sworn in to speak. Following a briefing by Board of Elections chairman Ted Lockerman, Jones presented his case first.
“I didn’t have any ulterior or preconceived motives,” said Jones. “I had been staying with my cousin Marcus (Artis) a little bit (at the Bladen Avenue address). Nobody knew it and nobody took notice of it, until they saw that I filed. That’s when everybody got into a frenzy. Ms. Clara Robinson didn’t know anything about that. Then they went to her and started twisting her arm using those old dirty South tactics.”
Jones said pictures had been taken of his perceived whereabouts — numerous pictures were taken by Smith and presented during his testimony — and Robinson was being harassed by a contingent of people in Garland, and Jones told Artis that it was not worth it, subsequently leaving the Bladen Avenue home.
Jones presented an affidavit of residence, signed by Artis and Paul Herring, who lives on East Second Street, stating that Jones lived in Garland from June 5 to July 26.
Jones said he was in the process of fixing up a home next to Herring’s now and presented a N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles, issued on Aug. 7, bearing that 195 E. Second Street address, owned by Herring’s sister. “This did not exist at the time you filed,” said Lockerman.
That residency was established July 28, after he left Artis’ Bladen Avenue home due to her being harassed, Jones said.
“I wasn’t going to put her against him,” said Jones of Artis and Robinson. “That wouldn’t be right. I’m not here to create a whole lot of enemies. It’s a situation where the bull didn’t bother the cowboy. The cowboy jumped on the bull. They said derogatory things about me. I didn’t say anything to anybody. This is the first time I’ve said anything to any of them.”
Jones said he never had anything against Smith or his father, Mayor Pro Tem Ralph Smith.
“Now they’re coming after me,” said Jones. “I’m not the only new candidate that is running, but they came after me.”
Smith said he never threatened anybody and said he only went by Paul Herring’s home once, on Monday. He said he never bribed anybody to testify against Jones was not doing his father’s bidding. He was challenging because he cares about the sanctity of the system.
“As far as my daddy goes, I am 52 years old. I do not answer to him on every decision I make,” said Smith. “It’s a matter of right and wrong. It’s plain and simple: he’s lying. I have no personal animosity toward Mr. Jones, nor am I or anyone in my family running for a board seat in the town of Garland. I’m only interested in protecting the integrity of our voting system.”
Incumbents Haywood C. Johnson, Denise Toler and Michael Toler have filed, along with challengers Carolyn Yolanda Melvin, past commissioner S.J. Smith, Judy C. Smith and Jones. Ralph Smith, a current commissioner, is running against Mayor Winifred Murphy in the mayoral race.
“It’s not fair to them,” said Smith. “It’s just simply not fair. It’s a known fact. He doesn’t live there. Everybody knows that. I feel like I have done my civic duty.”
Michael Toler, Ralph Smith and his wife Pearl Smith, also testified, as did S.J. Smith and Robinson. All testified they did not believe Jones lived in Garland.
“This is the first time I’ve seen Jones and I communicate with my grandson a lot,” Robinson said. “Jones doesn’t live there and hasn’t lived there. I know for a fact he did not live there.”
Board of Elections members asked how Robinson was so sure. She said she went there on a regular basis. Board of Election member Horace Bass said some people keep late hours and asked whether it was possible she did not see vehicles parked there because Jones had already left early in the morning. Robinson said she would not have known it.
Bass then brought up Robinson’s sworn statement handed in to the Board of Elections at the time of Smith’s challenge.
The statement, signed by Robinson, stated “I do not or have ever rented to John Jones. He does not reside on my property. I know nothing about him.”
Bass asked Robinson who approached her to write the statement. Pearl Smith said she did.
“I wrote it. I knew this was wrong. It’s wrong,” said Pearl Smith. “Somebody out of town tries to run in our little town and wants to be a commissioner and is living in Clinton, it’s wrong.”
Smith said believed she was the only one who approached Robinson, and said she did not harass her. She said they have been friends for a long time.
Sylvia Carter, who runs Eastern Chinese Restaurant and the person who Jones said convinced him to run for election, was told by Artis at her restaurant in late July that Jones had been staying at his Bladen Avenue residence since early June.
“Ms. Clara had no earthly idea that Jones was living there,” said Carter. “Marcus had told him he could stay and that’s the reason Jones was there, but he didn’t rent anything from Ms. Clara. Marcus did not indicate his grandma knew anything. But Marcus did say that because people had been to his grandmother that it upset him that his grandmother was upset.”
Testimony by Toler, who cuts grass for Robinson at the Bladen Avenue address, contradicted Carter’s.
“I asked Marcus if Jones was living there. He said no,” said Toler. “He said Jones had asked him if he could leave his vehicle there for a few days.”
Ralph Smith and S.J. Smith said they never saw Jones’ vehicles parked at the Bladen Avenue address. They said they both kept late hours and saw Jones’ vehicles parked at the home shortly after the residency challenge was publicized last month, but they soon disappeared.
Ralph Smith said he went so far as to follow Jones around, finding that he ultimately went to his home in Clinton. S.J. Smith said he never saw Jones near either of the residences, and only ever saw him go to and from Jones Barber Shop, which he owns, located on Ingold Avenue.
“I know it’s a lie,” said S.J. Smith of Jones’ given residence. “He found out that he had to establish a residence. He went there and parked that van and gave a phony address so he could get on the board. And people pushed him that knew he wasn’t in town. Some of them pushed that have a vendetta against the board.”
Jones said it was a sad display of bullying by Garland town officials.
“It’s sad that they would go to the extreme and do the things they’ve done,” said Jones. “Every time they saw my car, they would go dog them out. A lot of people own property but they don’t know everything that goes on there. They weren’t paying me any mind anyway. I wasn’t a threat to them until I put my name on that paper.”
When Jones came into the Board of Elections to file, he was initially told he could not run because of his Clinton address. However, Jones said he had been staying at the Bladen Avenue address for two months, meeting the one-month residency requirement, and changed his voter registration to that address. State law does not mandate documentation to change address.
“Mr. Jones does not now, nor has he ever, lived in the town of Garland,” said Smith. “Mr. Jones does not live at either one of those residences. He lives at 230 Presidents Lane in Clinton.”
Smith presented various searches that revealed Jones’ residence at 230 Presidents Lane, Clinton, as well as his 2013 Sampson County tax bill which bore the same address. Smith showed pictures of the Clinton home, where he had multiple cars parked that belong to him.
“This is where Mr. Jones lives, folks, always has,” Smith said. “That’s where he pays his taxes, that’s where he gets his light bill. He does not get a light bill on Second Street, he does not get a light bill at North Bladen, he gets a light bill at 230 Presidents Lane. That’s where he lives. That’s where he always lives.”
Smith said that was a deteriorated house known as a place where people consume alcohol. Bass asked Smith whether people lived there. He said they do, but contended Jones does not.
“This attempt at fraud by Mr. Jones on the good people of Garland and this board is so poorly and sloppily done, if it were not for the integrity of our great system at stake, it would be laughable,” said Smith. “We must serve notice to the people of this county that we will not tolerate this behavior from anyone. Justice must be served here.”
While Jones left the small meeting room where the hearing was held after stating his case, he could be seen shouting back and forth with Smith and others outside the Board of Elections building following the hearing.
The Sampson County Board of Elections is expected to render its ruling during a meeting set for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 20. An appeal can be made to the Court of Appeals and then to the Supreme Court.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.