A Jackson County judge has issued a stay in a controversial election in Hoschton.
James Lawson, a candidate for Hoschton City Council, filed an appeal with the Superior Court of Jackson County, challenging the Jackson County Board of Elections’ decision to disqualify him from the March 24 race.
Judge Joe Booth signed an order Feb. 28 issuing a stay of the elections board’s decision. A court hearing is set March 11 at 2 p.m.
Judge Booth’s decision will impact early voting in the race, which opened Monday, March 2. Lawson's name will remain on the ballot and voters in Hoschton will be able to cast a vote for him until the court hearing is held March 11, according to Jackson County elections officials.
The decision calls into question the legal standing of Raphael Mayberry as a city council member. Mayberry, who is Lawson’s opponent in the race, has already been sworn in as a member of the Hoschton City Council.
Hoschton mayor pro tem Adam Ledbetter is standing by the city’s decision, defending the action in a social media post.
Faced with a potential recall, former Hoschton mayor Theresa Kenerly and mayor pro tem Jim Cleveland resigned their posts late in 2019.
The remaining city council members at that time — Hope Weeks and newly-elected members Shantwon Astin and Ledbetter — were forced to go to court to allow the council to continue functioning with a three-member council.
Kenerly's and Cleveland's resignations also forced a special election to fill those vacated seats.
Lawson and Mayberry qualified to run for Cleveland's old seat. Meanwhile, Weeks and Shannon Sell qualified to run for the mayor's position.
Because Weeks qualified for mayor, she was forced to resign her seat on the Hoschton City Council. (Her old seat will be filled in a May 19 election.)
That left only two council members remaining, making the council essentially non-functional until the March 24 election.
LAWSON APPEALS, CITY SWEARS IN MAYBERRY
The county elections board voted 3-1 at a Feb. 12 hearing to uphold a challenge alleging that Lawson does not live in the city and cannot run for office.
Lawson filed a petition for judicial review in the Superior Court of Jackson County on Feb. 24. Lawson claimed the board had acted improperly by discussing his case behind closed doors and by discussing issues unrelated to the question of his legal residency.
After Lawson was disqualified, Ledbetter called a city council meeting on Feb. 24 and had Mayberry sworn into office. The move gave the council three members so that it could again hold meetings and function as a council.
It's not clear at this point if the court will allow Mayberry to continue in his role as a member of the council, or if his swearing-in is void until after the March 11 hearing. The Hoschton City Council has a meeting schedule for March 11 at 6:30 p.m.
WAS SWEARING IN PREMATURE?
When asked at that Feb. 24 meeting if the city had the legal authority to swear in Mayberry since Lawson's status was under appeal, Ledbetter said city attorney Thomas Mitchell had given the town the OK to do so.
Mitchell later defended the swearing-in via email to Mainstreet Newspapers. The city later posted Mitchell's comments on its Facebook page after Mainstreet said the swearing-in may have been premature.
"The City does not believe that it acted prematurely in swearing in Mr. Mayberry as it did on Monday, February 24, 2020," Mitchell said. "While the City always recognizes there are some risk when a decision is under judicial review, under the circumstances the City’s action was appropriate."
Mitchell also said that since no stay had been given in the case, he believed Mayberry could be sworn into office.
"Although Mr. Lawson has asked the Superior Court to review the decision of the Board of Elections, the statute specifically states that the mere filing of the appeal does not operate as a stay.... As there is no stay, the City may proceed in accordance with the Board of Elections’ decision. There is only one qualified candidate and he was sworn in to fulfill the duties of the unexpired term. Because the City now has three elected officials, it can once again take necessary actions on behalf of the citizens of the City of Hoschton."
Following Judge Booth’s decision to stay the decision, Ledbetter posted an additional defense on the city’s Facebook page.
“The City of Hoschton stands behind our decision to swear in councilman Raphael Mayberry,” he said. “The city attorney backs our decision and we will conduct business as usual until the March 11th hearing. If something changes after that, we will accommodate.
“Hoschton looks forward to getting to work and resolving issues that have been put on hold since January. Furthermore, the city is operating fantastically and look forward to having a full council and mayor soon.”