Victim becomes villain

Published 10:16 am Thursday, January 28, 2016

AHOSKIE – Rather than feeling like a hero for drawing attention to alleged irregularities during the municipal election process here, Donald Kirkland says the tables are now turned against him.

This comes despite his appeal over the residential requirements of a candidate seeking a seat on the Ahoskie Town Council being upheld by the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCBOE) during a Jan. 15 hearing in Raleigh.

“I feel that I’m now the villain for bringing this up,” Kirkland told the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald earlier this week. “People are saying that I should have left this issue alone.

“This is an ethical issue; if you as a former or current candidate for election, current or former Council member, or even a citizen, it is incumbent to make sure the individual running for elective office actually resides in the Ward they are to represent. If an elected official does not reside in your ward, then you are not truly being represented as you deserve to be,” he added.

The issue surrounds incumbent Ward B Ahoskie Councilman Maurice Vann, who easily defeated Kirkland in the Nov. 3 municipal election. However, four days prior to that election, Kirkland filed a protest with the Hertford County Board of Elections (HCBOE), claiming that Vann did not reside in Ward B.

Vann, during a Nov. 9 hearing by the HCBOE regarding Kirkland’s protest, admitted living at 317 Maple Street (located in Ward A), but his “domicile” was at 222 Malibu Drive (Ward B). The HCBOE dismissed Kirkland’s protest, which he in turn appealed to the NCBOE based on his thoughts that the local board had erred in its judgment by applying the wrong state stature used in determining a political candidate’s residence. He added a claim of unethical behavior by one or more of the local board members.

Kirkland said the issue regarding Vann’s home address came to his attention on Oct. 28.

“I received numerous telephone calls regarding a concern that Mr. Vann did not and had not lived in Ward B while holding a council seat and during this (2015) election cycle,” Kirkland said. “These calls came from citizens that live in Ward B and who knew Mr. Vann personally. They asked to keep their names anonymous for fear of reprisals, and thusly I honored their request. I as a citizen, but more importantly as candidate at that time, it was incumbent upon me to follow through with the citizens of Ward B request to have this investigated.”

Kirkland claims there are several locally elected officials who are aware that Vann did not reside in Ward B, but chose not to speak.

“I am not making a direct accusation of misconduct of any individual(s), or group of individuals, but when you know something is wrong, ethically an individual should speak up to bring the matter forth and fix it,” Kirkland said.

He continued, “These are not arguments I made lightly. I weighed the evidence, presented it and allowed for a body of officials to make the final decision. I did what I was requested to do by citizens of Ward B in Ahoskie to include those citizens in Ward A and B immediately around his residence in Ward A.

“I bear Mr. Vann no ill feelings, personal or otherwise, and truly sorry that the decision found he violated residency laws by not living in Ward B during the election, whether his intentions were willful or non-willful. That is for the citizens of Ahoskie, in particular Ward B, as well as the electoral legal system to determine,” Kirkland added.

According to the transcript of the Jan. 15 appeals hearing in Raleigh, a copy of which was obtained by this newspaper, Kirkland said Vann admitted to residing at 317 North Maple Street and receives his mail at that address. Additionally, the record shows Kirkland telling the State Board that Vann admitted that his sister and her two children resided at 222 Malibu Drive and had lived there for several years.

As far as his protest hearing before the HCBOE in November, Kirkland claimed they based their judgment on the incorrect state statute. He said NCGS 163-57, subsection (9)(a) was used by the local board, adding that particular law only deals individuals elected to the North Carolina State Legislature and/or U.S. Congress to facilitate a temporary residence to carry out their elective duties in either Raleigh or Washington, DC with intent to return to the primary domicile (home county where they are registered to vote).

“The Hertford County Board of Elections used that as a definition for him (Vann), saying that Ward B, 222 Malibu Drive was his domicile,” Kirkland testified before the NCBOE.

“We agree with you, that statute’s not applicable here. We don’t need to argue it. And I don’t see any reference to that statute by the (Hertford County) Board in their order,” stated Judge James L. Baker, a member of the NCBOE, at the state hearing.

Judge Baker went on to say, “The question is whether he (Vann) actually is domiciled at 317 Maple Street or 222 Malibu Drive.”

In further testimony, Kirkland said Vann did not meet that requirement based on his residency eligibility because

Ahoskie is divided into two wards, and you must reside in that ward to represent it.

“I’m asking that the (State) Board overturn the protest dismissal (by the Hertford County Board),” Kirkland said, adding that he believed a person’s domicile is where one physically resides on a permanent basis, and from where they file their personal income tax.

Vann did not attend the appeal hearing in Raleigh. However, he was available by phone with the State Board and answered several questions posed by that body.

When asked what address did he use to file his federal taxes, Vann admitted 317 North Maple Street, at least for last year. Upon questioning concerning the residential address on his North Carolina driver’s license, Vann said it was 317 North Maple Street.

When the state board quizzed him about the address he used for his residential water bill, electric power bill, and internet service bill, it was deemed necessary at that point to place Vann under oath to testify to his answers.

In response to the question about the billing address used for utilities, Vann he did not have that information at hand.

“I didn’t know that I was going to a hearing today, that I was having–you know, that I had to speak,” he said, as noted in the transcript. “I’m sorry that I’m not able to be there. I do not have my (legal) counsel with me. I’m going to let the record speak for me, what’s up there, and I won’t be answering any questions over the phone like this.”

When asked by that did he mean he was seeking protections under his federal rights in the U.S. Constitution against self incrimination, the record shows Vann replying, “Yes, I am.”

The only other question Vann answered was the same issue Kirkland said he had with the Hertford County Board of Elections concerning the results of that board’s vote to dismiss Kirkland’s protest on Nov. 9.

Vann, like Kirkland, said he attended protest hearing, held at the Hertford County Courthouse but was not aware of the local board taking a vote with the public present.

By telephone, the NCBOE also questioned Shelia Privott, Director of the Hertford County Board of Elections, concerning the address Vann used for voter registration. She responded that he registered in 2007 using 222 Malibu Drive as his address.

In their deliberations, NCBOE member Rhonda K. Amoroso said that Vann has the burden of proof.

“He has to prove his case, that he lives in Ward B, and I am not convinced, based on the lack of evidence in this matter,

that he has made his case,” she noted.

NCBOE member Dr. Maja Kricker said Kirkland’s questions about Vann’s residency were valid. However, her opinion in this appeal seemed to center on the HCBOE’s lack of input in ensuring that the information on file by a political candidate regarding his residence is correct.

“When a candidate is challenged, the county board of elections has the option of looking up public records,” Kricker said. “They can look up tax information. They can subpoena witnesses or offer the option of sworn affidavits, and the county board really did not make a real effort to find evidence that would bring out the truth.”

In his comments, Judge Baker also chastised the HCBOE concerning the public meeting they held on Nov. 9 to hear Kirkland’s protest.

“It was really disappointing to see the local board’s hearing-

the manner in which, if you look at the transcript, it does indeed say that they adjourned, and they adjourned without making any voting, without expressing any opinions, or anything, and then the next day, they signed an order (that dismissed the protest),” he remarked. “The order was signed, according to the information we have, without a public vote, without members of the public having the opportunity to be present. I think that was indeed a violation of the open meetings law.

“I think that there was a valid challenge to Mr. Vann’s residence. I don’t think he should have been a candidate. I think he has gone out of his way to try to give the impression that he lives at 317 Maple Street in a vague and meandering way, not only at the (HCBOE) hearing, but even in here today until the point that he finally refused to answer questions,” Baker added.

The Judge pointed out in the transcript from the HCBOE hearing, Vann is cited as saying he didn’t know when asked if the residence at 222 Malibu Drive was listed in his aunt’s name.

“So he’s saying he lives there, and he doesn’t know whose name the residence is in,” Baker said. “In the (HCBOE) transcript he was asked did he own 317 Maple? ‘No’ was his first answer, and then he said, ‘Well, I’m paying the bank on it.’.”

“I think it’s obvious what we have here and I think that was inappropriate for the good citizens of Ahoskie to have an election in that manner, and I think the local board’s actions were also inappropriate in the way that they handled it,” Judge Baker stated, adding that the state board has the legal authority to correct the situation.

Among their findings of fact, the NCBOE said that during the local board’s hearing of Kirkland’s protest on Nov. 9 and at his appeals hearing in Raleigh on Jan. 15 shows that Vann was not domiciled within the Ahoskie Town Council’s Ward B at the time of the Nov. 3, 2015 election.

In their conclusions of law, the NCBOE found that the order of the HCBOE, its findings of fact, and conclusions of law contained reversible error; and that Kirkland’s challenge to Vann’s domicile was properly brought as a protest. It also found that Vann failed to meet his burden of proof as to his domicile, and thusly was ineligible to participate as a candidate in the Nov. 3, 2015 election to the Town of Ahoskie Council Ward B.

“There is substantial evidence to believe a violation of election law or other irregularity or misconduct occurred that affected the outcome of the election or was sufficiently serious to cast doubt on the apparent results of the election,” the NCBOE wrote.

In a unanimous vote, the NCBOE ordered a reversal of the Nov. 9 decision reached by the local county board and that the HCBOE must conduct candidate filing and hold a new election for Ahoskie’s Ward B on March 15, as part of the statewide Primary.

Filing ended a week ago with Kirkland and Charles Reynolds on the ballot.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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