Though the city of Gum Branch held its elections Tuesday, legal hiccups complicated the process — possibly leaving the door open for contested results. Kathy Todd won the mayoral race, ousting incumbent Richard Strickland.
Unlike other municipalities that contracted the work to the Liberty County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, the city opted instead to conduct its own elections, with city clerk Evelyn Strickland acting as elections superintendent.
But Strickland’s relationship to two candidates, Richard Strickland, her husband, and council candidate Jesse Strickland, their son, created an illegal conflict of interest as outlined in the Official Code of Georgia.
O.C.G.A. § 21-2-70.1 addresses municipal superintendents and states that “a parent, spouse, child, brother, sister, father-in-law, mother-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law or sister-in-law of a candidate shall not be eligible to serve as a municipal superintendent in any primary or election in which such candidate’s name appears on the ballot.”
“We were just trying to save the city some money,” Richard Strickland explained. By his understanding, contracting with the county would have cost the city between $8,000 and $10,000, but conducting the election alone was to cost an estimated $1,000.
According to Charles Simpson, an incumbent city councilman also seeking re-election, the council addressed its concerns over the possible conflict during an Oct. 18 meeting.
“She [Evelyn] reassured us that she had already checked, and that it was not going to be a conflict,” Simpson said. “As of that meeting, when we voiced our concerns about it and were assured that everything was OK, I didn’t accept their answer and asked my own questions,” he said, explaining that he followed-up with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office and with City Attorney Richard Braun.
“It would have been a major problem (if Evelyn had supervised the election),” Braun said Tuesday. Until Simpson brought the topic up with him, Braun said he did not even realize the city was having an election, as its races are frequently uncontested.
On Monday, Strickland enlisted Braun’s help to find someone else qualified to supervise the election, and Strickland appointed resident Kenny Wells.
The same code section, however, also states that “the municipal superintendent shall be a person selected by the governing authority of the municipality in a public meeting, and such selection shall be recorded in the minutes of such meeting.”
On Tuesday, Strickland, Braun and Simpson each confirmed that there had not been a called meeting to appoint Wells.
“If someone challenges the election, they would have legitimate grounds to,” Braun said, though he took care to add that he did not believe anyone acted in malice.
“Both the candidates running are good people. ... “I think a lot of it — and I mean this in the literal way — a lot of it is just ignorance of the situation,” he said.
Braun added that those involved should have come to him earlier, and that the concerns should have been addressed immediately following the Oct. 18 meeting.
Still, Richard Strickland insists that his wife’s intention was not to interact with any ballots and she was to act only in a supervisory capacity. And kinship in the town of about 375 is hard to overcome, he added.
“Everybody out here is kin. Everybody is related some way or another,” he said.
Todd won the mayoral seat by a 13-vote margin, with 37 votes to Strickland’s 24, Wells said at 7:10 p.m. A total of 61 voters turned out.
“I love the community of Gum Branch, and I’m really proud to be elected as the mayor, and I hope to do a good job for our people,” Todd said, adding that her father was the first mayor of Gum Branch.
Four other candidates, Simpson, Irene Chandler, Edward Wells and Jesse Strickland, ran for the four-seat city council.