Four people, including the current Ringgold mayor, have challenged the legitimacy of contender Paul Lee’s candidacy for the office one week after qualifying to run.
Last week, Lee, a pro wrestler and local businessman, qualified for the office to become the successor to long-time mayor Joe Barger, who isn’t seeking re-election.
According to city codes, candidates must be a registered voter and must Ringgold live within the city limits for at least the past 12 months.
After a little digging, current vice mayor Nick Millwood, Barger, and other mayoral candidates Tony Hullender and Jerry Payne, are claiming Lee doesn’t meet the qualifications to run for the office because he resides in Catoosa County, but not inside the Ringgold city limits.
“It seems like the same system that has run Ringgold for years and has kept it from growing for years is out to get someone that’s trying to make it better,” Lee said Tuesday morning, Sept. 8.
According to Ringgold elections superintendent Nicki Lundeen, Barger and the other three candidates submitted formal challenges in writing, and now she’s looking into the claim.
Millwood says he doesn’t dislike Lee or anything of that nature, but that a candidate who doesn’t meet the qualifying parameters could alter the election if he were to garner any number of votes.
“Paul Lee and I have never met,” Millwood said. “This is in no way an attack on his character. However, the evidence strongly suggests he doesn’t live in the city, which is a requirement to run for the office of mayor in the city of Ringgold.”
Lee owns a home just outside of Ringgold off Hammel Hollow Road, but also says he has a second residence in Ringgold’s Bluff View subdivision, where Millwood also resides.
“I have two residences — one in the city and one in the county,” Lee said. “My city residence I have owned for several years, but have been letting my mother-in-law live in it. But for the last year and a half, my family and I have made it our primary residence while my county home is being updated. …. We’re getting it ready to sell in the spring.”
While Millwood says he understands a person owning multiple properties, he does raise lots of questions about the timing of Lee’s residing in Bluff View claim.
“One of my jobs is to protect the citizens of Ringgold from being hoodwinked, so I did some research in public records,” Millwood said. “First, I was curious about the address he used in my neighborhood of Bluff View in order to qualify, so I went to the tax assessor web page to look up info on who owned the house. On Aug. 7, 2015, the house was transferred to Paul for $0 as a gift from a family member. Next, I went by the registrar’s office to see when he registered to vote in the city. On Aug. 11, 2015, he changed his driver’s license address to Bluff View and registered to vote in the city at that time.”
Lee insists that the details of the residence and how long he’s lived there are being blown out of proportion.
“I paid for the house, and I pay taxes on the house even when I let my mother-in-law use it,” Lee said. “I’ve had it in her name. The rules apply that you must live there for a year, and I’ve lived there as my primary home for the last year and a half. The requirements don't state that you can’t have two homes.
Lee said he even pointed the matter out at city hall when he picked up his qualifying packet to run for the office.
“I addressed this before running,” Lee said. “I think the problem is that the ones that don’t want me in this seat know I’m in it to win it, and that I’m a leader with a purpose. If it takes cleaning the whole city up to make sure it’s right for the citizens, then that’s what I will do.”
Lundeen says that she’ll look over the challenge and hold a public hearing on the matter sometime in the near future.
“We have to send formal notice to Mr. Lee that his candidacy is being challenged, and then we’ll have the hearing where those challenging will have time to state their case for the challenge,” she said. “Mr. Lee will also have time to respond to each challenge, and then when the hearing is over, a final decision will be made in the matter.”
As for Lee and Millwood, both men are standing their ground and will present their sides of the argument to Lundeen next week.
“All I can say is I paid my $180 and did all I had to do to qualify. So why don’t we leave it up to the citizens who they want to be mayor?” Lee said.
Millwood says he just wants to keep an even playing field for the candidates he feels met the designated qualifications.
“In such a small city, the election can be easily swayed,” Millwood said. “We deserve to have a fair election. He (Lee) may or may not have a shot at winning, but if he gets even one vote, it could change the outcome of the election and make it illegitimate. When mayor Barger won his seat, he was only three votes ahead of his closest rival. I was only nine votes away from fourth place when I ran for council, which would have knocked me out of having the honor to serve. As I don’t know Paul, I have nothing against him personally, but I do believe in playing by the rules.”