Property owner voting again a focus of Pigeon Forge referendum

Feb. 18, 2013 @ 02:46 PM

The right of nonresident property owners to vote in municipal elections has come under scrutiny due to the controversy over Pigeon Forge’s liquor by the drink referendum.

Questions over whether property owners legally voted in the Nov. 6 referendum arose in the contesting of election filed by Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge, the campaign group formed to oppose the measure.

Chancellor Telford Forgety overturned the results of that election after the Sevier County Election Commission admitted poll workers erred by allowing nonresidents to vote in the election. A re-vote is set for March 14.

However, that error wasn’t based on any claim by those voters that they owned property in the city; the election commission said the workers were confused because the vote on the referendum was held on the same day as the general election, meaning they had voters from outside Pigeon Forge coming to vote in the general election as well as registered Pigeon Forge voters.

Election officials say some of the workers believed everyone coming to vote that day should vote in the municipal election, and that led to 289 non eligible people casting ballots.

While that was the issue that decided the contest of election, it wasn’t the only one CCCPF had reside. The group questioned whether some property owners violated the law, specifically saying, among other things, that some individuals registered to vote using the same property on Teaster Lane, and claimed that 24 property owners gave incomplete addresses.

Election officials said that people who appeared to have used the same address on their list were actually condo owners — while they might have had the same address, they owned different units within the same building. There were several people who owned property in areas where no street number had been assigned, they said.

Since questions about the election surfaced, a number of readers have also asked The Mountain Press about the legality of the property owner votes in general.

State law provides for that right under its regulations for elections — Tennessee Code Annotated 2-2-107 (a)(3) allows for those votes if they are also permitted under a city charter: “Notwithstanding any provision of the law to the contrary, if a municipal charter provides for property rights voting, no more than two persons shall be entitled to vote based upon the ownership of an individual tract of property regardless of the number of property owners.”

Pigeon Forge’s charter allows for property rights votes. They’re also allowed in Gatlinburg and Sevierville. Other nearby cities allowing property rights votes include Knoxville and Maryville, according to copies of the charters for those cities in a database kept by the Municipal Technical Advisory Service.

While CCCPF supporters, including City Commissioner Randal Robinson, have decried the ability of people to vote based on even a minuscule interest in a property — so-called “1-percenters” — City Attorney Jim Gass has reported there’s no law governing the amount of interest a person must own in a property.

Readers have also questioned whether state law prevents property owners from transferring interest in property for the sole purpose of allowing a person to vote using a piece of property. There does not appear to be any law in place preventing that, either.

Blake Fontenay, spokesman for the Department of State, which oversees elections, said he was unaware of any election laws that would prevent that kind of property transfer.

Sherry Robertson Huskey, Sevier County Register of Deeds, said she wasn’t aware of a law that would prohibit that behavior, either.

“Anybody can transfer property as often as they’d want to,” she said.

There doesn’t have to be a transfer of funds for them to complete that transaction, either, she said.

Questions about the issue will likely continue.

Since Forgety ordered a new election, about 104 more people registered to vote in that capacity, putting the total at around 365. There were 188 in 2011, meaning the total just about doubled since that time.

The city has an estimated 3,285 people registered to vote as residents, officials said. They cautioned those numbers could change a little bit, as they’re still reviewing information provided by newly registered voters a well as reviewing records such as address changes that could drop some from the rolls.

In the meantime, CCCPF has asked the election commission to require certain non-resident property owners to vote by provisional or challenge ballots in the new election.

It claim that temporary transfers of minority interest in property to allow the interest holders to vote in an election violates state law.

“It certainly appears the scheme of conveying minority and temporary property interests in valuable commercial property ... for no value but simply for the purposes of qualifying nonresidents to vote in the Pigeon Forge Municipal Election is a violation of Tennessee law,” attorney Lewis Howard Jr. wrote in the formal request. He cites state laws dealing with bribing of voters.

The request was sent to the election commission’s attorney Thursday. Administrator of Elections Ronee Flynn said her office had not made any decision about the request Friday.