Haven convinces board that motel is home
In front of a crowded courtroom Tuesday, the Macon County Board of Elections voted unanimously to dismiss a challenge protesting Commissioner Ron Haven’s legitimacy as a candidate.
The challenge alleged that Haven was not in fact a legal resident of the Franklin voting district.
Haven claims his legal “domicile” is a small efficiency apartment at the Budget Inn — rather than his house in Mill Creek Country Club with his wife and kids.
Haven owns the Budget Inn, and says he prefers to stay there close to his business operations in town, while his wife prefers “the environment” at Mill Creek Country Club.
The brouhaha over where Haven lives — at his motel apartment or house with his family — threatened his candidacy. Candidates can’t shop around for the district they want to run in, but must actually live in that specific district.
The Budget Inn is in District II, but Mill Creek Country Club isn’t.
“If a person doesn’t live in the district they’re in, they ought to run in a district they do live in,” said Charles Nichols, a registered Democrat in Franklin who filed the complaint against Haven.
Nichols may have affixed his name to the challenge, but it was researched and largely written by Corey Duvall, chair of the Macon Democratic Party.
“I feel like the community feels as though it’s been lied to, which in all honesty, it has,” said Corey Duvall, chairman of the Macon County Democratic Party.
Ultimately, the board of elections believed Haven, however.
“I’m thankful,” Haven said. “Why I was challenged I don’t understand or know, but when you’re an elected official, there’s always someone who’s looking for any fault they can find, and often small things are exaggerated.”
Nichols said there were valid questions over Haven’s actual residency that deserved an answer. The hearing settled those questions to Nichols’ satisfaction, he said, and he does not plan to appeal the decision.
“The main thing I was wanting to get was clarification, and that was provided to me today,” he said, “so I’m satisfied.”
Macon Commissioner Chairman Kevin Corbin said he — and the rest of the commissioners as far as Corbin knows — believe Haven’s side of the story.
“I personally don’t feel like he would intentionally do anything misleading, but when there’s a citizen complaint filed there’s a process with that,” Corbin said Monday, explaining that the hearing simply constituted the Board of Elections’ compliance with the process outlined in North Carolina law.
Haven was represented at the hearing by Attorney Orville Coward. Coward led a line of questioning that Haven followed, dutifully laying out the history of his residency, travel schedule and family life over the past 10 years.
The big question came when Coward asked Haven to recollect “where you laid your head each night during the year 2013?”
At the hearing, he testified that he spends about 160 nights per year at his Budget Inn apartment and that he keeps clothes, toiletries and cooking supplies there.
As for the rest of the year?
“I spent about 100 nights on the road promoting gun shows and participating in gun shows or other trade show events. I spent about, on the average, about 45 days through the summer traveling with my wife and children. Around Christmas time I spent about two weeks in California.”
That left very few nights spent at his family’s home at Mill Creek Country Club.
“I probably have spent, on the very high-end estimate with respect to Mr. Nichols, about 45 nights in Mill Creek,” Haven said.
Though he and his wife are not separated, he testified, they maintain separate residences.
“I’ve lived in town and I have tried to be best of my knowledge to be where I have hands-on contact at all times with my business,” Haven testified. “My wife chooses to live in Mill Creek because she likes the environment better, but I prefer to live in town.”
Haven testified that he first claimed residency at the Budget Inn in 2003, when he lived in a one-room apartment there until purchasing the Franklin Motel in 2009. At that time, he moved to a three-bedroom apartment at the Franklin Motel with his wife and two children, but he divested himself of that motel in 2011 and changed his address back to the Budget Inn.
Haven presented current and past voter registration cards, as well as a current driver’s license, to corroborate that story.
The Budget Inn caters specifically to Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, providing a free shuttle and laundry services, so during hiking season in particular, Haven is on call at all hours, he said.
Jen Crossman, a campground owner who came to the hearing in support of Haven, volunteered her testimony to support that point of view.
“You have to be there 24/7 because you never know when a hiker is going to knock on your door,” she said.
Prior to the hearing, however, Nichols said that argument doesn’t hold water for him.
“The motel that he used for his residence has been closed for five months for the winter,” he said. “They just open in the summer.”
“People think that summertime’s the only time I live there,” Haven countered on Monday afternoon, “and it’s not.”
Much of Haven’s mail goes to his Mill Creek address, but that’s because his wife doubles as his secretary. It’s no different than any other professional receiving work-related mail at the office and personal mail at home, he said.
Trouble with the law
Ultimately, it is up to the board of elections to determine what the preponderance of evidence showed: did Haven truly see the Budget Inn as his home? And that can be a subjective question to answer.
Even Don Wright, general counsel for the N.C. State Board of Elections and author of a 20-page paper on residency requirements, isn’t exactly sure what the requirements mean in real life.
“I can’t. And I’m not trying to be funny,” he said when asked to explain them.
He was able to say that in a residency challenge hearing, the burden of proof is on the person who is being challenged to disprove the allegations, rather than on the challenger to prove them.
The dropped challenge
Haven wasn’t the only candidate to be slapped with a residency challenge. A similar complaint was lodged against commissioner candidate Gary Shields, a moderate Republican. It was filed by a far-right conservative, Victor Drummond.
“It’s unusual to have even one complaint,” said Kevin Corbin, county commission chairman. “To have two is extremely unusual.”
But Drummond withdrew his challenge against Shields on Tuesday just hours after sitting in on the hearing and witnessing just how subjective the residency test for candidates is.
Shields does, in fact, have two houses. And both have his clothes in the closet, his mail in the mailbox and power, and his food in the cupboards. He pays power and cable bills at both as well.
In summer, you’re more apt to find Shields and his wife at his country club home on Mill Creek, where they can enjoy the backyard pool and golf course next-door. But during the other eight months of the year, they’re likely to be at their townhouse, Shields said, and that’s the one that he declared as his residency to run in District II.
The split living situation came about because when Shields remarried 12 years ago, both he and his new wife owned homes. So, they decided to keep both and use both. He claims to have spent the majority of his time at his wife’s Holly Springs home on Lauren Lane ever since.
“That’s where I’m sitting in the living room now,” Shields said, talking on the phone for an interview Sunday night.
But he keeps a hold on the Mill Creek home. He raised his boys there, receives a Franklin Press subscription there twice a week and, until last week, listed his driver’s license address there. In response to last week’s challenge, he headed to the DMV first thing Monday morning to get a new license with the Lauren Lane address. He’d been meaning to do so sooner, he said, but just hadn’t gotten around to it.
And until recently, that address appeared on his voter registration card. He never got around to changing his voter registration data after he got remarried and moved in with new wife, he said.
But a few months ago, when he realized he wanted to run for commissioner in District II, he figured he better change his voting address.
Of course, he still stops by Mill Creek often. When we caught up with him again mid-day Monday, Shields was swinging by his Mill Creek house.
“This time, I’m just walking in the door at Mill Creek,” he said.
News Editor Jeremy Morrison contributed to this report.