Does it matter where your mayor lives? Macon-Bibb charter is unclear

The most recent meeting of the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections began with a public comment questioning the residency of one of the mayoral candidates.

Speaking “on behalf of all concerned citizens of Macon, Georgia,” the woman alleged Marc Whitfield actually lives out of state but the elections board lists Whitfield’s address as being in the Lake Wildwood neighborhood.

“I am perfectly qualified to run for mayor of Macon-Bibb,” Whitfield emailed the Center for Collaborative Journalism, 0r CCJ, in response to an inquiry.

That appears to be correct even if the allegation was true as the charter is ambiguous as it is written.

While it states a candidate must have lived in the county for at least a year, it does not specify when. Theoretically, a candidate could have spent 12 months residing in Macon as a child to qualify.

Whitfield wrote in biographical information submitted to the CCJ that he’s lived in Macon about 28 years and in Warner Robins for two decades.

When questioned about the residency allegation, Whitfield cited the code.

“I have been a resident of Macon-Bibb for over a year and it is my understanding that the code only mandates mayoral candidates live in Bibb County one year of their lives. Again, I have been a resident of Bibb for over a year and currently reside in Bibb County,” Whitfield stated in an email.

The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office shows Whitfield has been registered to vote at his Macon address since May of 2019, a year before the original date of the election, which was postponed due to COVID-19.

Qualifications for county commissioner are much more specific and require that a candidate “has been a resident of Macon-Bibb County for a period of one year immediately prior to the date of the election.”

The section of the charter concerning the mayor’s race states: “To be eligible for election to the office of mayor, a person at the time of election shall: … Have resided in Macon-Bibb County for at least one year.” There is no mention that the year must be immediately prior to the election.

Blake Sullivan indicates he’s lived in Macon for 19 years. Larry Schlesinger stated he’s resided in Macon for over 16 years and Lester Miller’s biography says the attorney has lived here all his 51 years and spent his childhood living in seven different neighborhoods.

Mayoral candidate Cliffard Whitby, who goes by Clifford on the ballot, professes to have lived in Macon all his life, yet he has a residence in Monroe County in addition to the commercially-zoned house he listed as his Macon address while qualifying. Tax records show his company, Whitby Inc., purchased the Hardeman Avenue property in 2016 and transferred it into his name two months later.

Since 2006, Whitby Inc. has owned the Monroe County house which is zoned residential. There is no homestead exemption on either property, according to online tax records.

William Nolan, attorney for the board of elections, said the time has passed for anyone but the board to challenge a candidate’s qualifications.

“Citizens have the right to file a challenge to the qualifications of the candidate within two weeks of qualifying,” Nolan told the board. “The board does have the right to file a challenge to the qualifications up until the election.”

“No one from the general public can bring it up now,” elections board chair Mike Kaplan said.

Board member Herb Spangler raised concerns.

“My worry… can we have a mayor that doesn’t even live in the district?” Spangler questioned.

Board member Henry Ficklin countered, “Can we have a water authority member who doesn’t live in the district?”

Ficklin was referring to the board’s challenge to the appointment of Sheddrick Clark to fill the unexpired Macon Water Authority District 2 term of the late Javors Lucas. Clark does not live in that district and could not run for the seat.

The Macon Water Authority maintains Clark is qualified for the post.

Spangler’s question about the mayor is an interesting one because the consolidated government charter doesn’t say anything about the mayor actually living in the county.

When asked about the language in the law, acting Macon-Bibb County attorney Duke Groover said he believes the intent of the charter was to require that a mayoral candidate actually live within the county limits for the year immediately prior to the election.

It’s unclear whether the current wording would allow a challenge to anyone’s residency who has lived at least a year in the county.

The qualifications for commission also state that a commissioner must continue to reside within the district during the term of office, but there is no similar language for mayor.

The charter reads that a commission candidate must be “a registered and qualified elector of Macon-Bibb County,” but the mayor’s qualifications only state that a candidate “be a qualified elector of the restructured government” and does not mention actually being registered.

By nature of being a “qualified elector,” it is implied someone must reside in the county, but the bill doesn’t specifically state that the mayor must live in the county during his term.

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or [email protected]