Orange Park election questioned

Mayor: to contest the election or not?

Jesse Hollett
Posted 4/19/17

ORANGE PARK – An email forwarded to town officials by Mayor Eugene Nix alleged voters from outside the Town of Orange Park voted in the April 11 election. Nix promised legal action for the results …

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Orange Park election questioned

Mayor: to contest the election or not?

Posted

ORANGE PARK – An email forwarded to town officials by Mayor Eugene Nix alleged voters from outside the Town of Orange Park voted in the April 11 election. Nix promised legal action for the results of the election, but by the regular April 18 town council meeting, his tone changed.

“I intend to investigate this and use whatever legal means at my disposal to challenge the validity of this election,” Nix wrote in the April 14 email to Town Attorney Sam Garrison and obtained by Clay Today.

Nix’s email alleged he had verified information that at least one voter was not a legal resident of the town, and that if there was one then there surely “must be more,” but gave no further information. The incumbent Nix lost the race for Council Seat 2 to opponent Alan Watt by seven votes on April 11. Under Florida law, candidates have 10 days following an election to file a legal challenge with the clerk of court.

Garrison then forwarded the email to Clay County Supervisor of Elections Chris Chambless and Town Clerk Sarah Campbell.

After a one-on-one conversation with Garrison immediately following the council meeting, Nix appeared to backtrack on the decisive language of his email. Nix said instead of legal action, he intended to make election officials aware of any “anomalies” in the system.

Nix said he had received an “anonymous tip” that a non-resident of the town had voted in the election, but was unwilling to provide any further details on how he had verified the authenticity of the information, or any further details regarding the information. He said he would provide proof later.

At press time, Nix had not provided proof of his allegations to Clay Today.

In an interview shortly after his conversation with Garrison, Nix said he now believed the results of the election would not change even if he decided to litigate, and said financially he did not want to go through the trouble of a lawsuit.

“I don’t think this community needs to go through [litigation], my only goal or point is that if I see inefficiencies in the system then I want to correct it so it doesn’t happen again,” Nix said.

“I’m not interested in getting in a legal battle, that’s not me first off, and it’s not worth it.”

Chambless said that in his tenure, no elected official or candidate has challenged the results of an election. He said however, there is a precedent for questioning the residency of a voter. Typically, voter residency challenges are filed prior to an election and require the voter in question to provide contrary evidence and vote on a provisional ballot.

“We would make every attempt to contact that individual and let them know that a statement has been made against their eligibility and allow them to provide information to the contrary,” Chambless said.

Chambless said there are a number of safeguards to curtail situations where non-residents are voting in municipal elections.

Only the circuit court has the power to question a vote after the fact.

“We have a part in it from the standpoint that we maintain the voter registration rolls but we have no investigative power, so it would be incumbent on the courts or the state attorney to prove that a voter registered at an address that they don’t physically live at,” Chambless said.

Nix said that while he no longer intends to file a legal contest, his conscience could rest easier if a full audit was performed on the voter rolls.

However, that will not happen unless he contests the election with credible evidence, and currently Nix does not intend to contest the election results.

Nix chocks his narrow loss to his supporters not making it to the polls, and an initiative by what he calls “community activists” intended to swing the voters in his opponent’s favor.

“They went all out and I think some questionable things were done that should not be allowed to be done,” Nix said, but did not elaborate.

Nix used the phrase in a mass email sent out to residents following the election.

“We have one last chance of taking back control of our town from a handful of community activist[s] who are determined to change Orange Park[‘]s great quality of life as we know it and take it in a different direction than what it was meant to be,” Nix wrote.

He then publically endorsed candidate Ron Raymond for Seat 1, who is in a runoff election against candidate Larry Nichols. Their opponent, Eddie Henley, came in third after getting 166 total ballots in his favor.

“Seat one will have a runoff election Tuesday May 9th with Ron Raymond and the other guy,” Nix wrote in his mass email to Orange Park residents. “I strongly urge you to return once again to the [polls] May 9 and support Ron and your voice on Council[,] otherwise the residents have lost BIG TIME!”

Speaking during the town council meeting’s public comment period, Rev. William Randal of St. Simon Baptist Church expressed his offense to Nix’s use of the phrase community activist as a pejorative. He also said Nix’s endorsement was unethical.

“I just don’t believe that pastors and preachers and activists ought to be called unethical when we’re only trying to encourage people who have been oppressed and forgotten and the least and the lost of the community to get out and register to vote,” Randal said.

“I believe that as a sitting mayor, who is elected by the people of Orange Park, [you] should not have the right or authority to send out letters like this to registered voters and town citizens, including myself,” Randal said. “In my opinion what you’re doing is oppressing and dividing, and I believe, Mr. Mayor, from your seat as the mayor, you should respect and sincerely appreciate an apology for what has been sent out.”

When asked his response for his public endorsement, Nix said considering he has been voted out, the situation is of no consequence.

“As far as I’m concerned, I am still a public official, but the fact that I won’t be returning [next year] kind of marginalized my situation,” Nix said.

Nix also criticized a Nichols campaign mailer that contains a photograph and quote from Green Cove Springs Mayor Pam Lewis endorsing Nichols, who owns Grace House Counseling Center on Fleming Island. Both Lewis and Town Council member Connie Thomas work together with Nichols.

“There’s a golden rule that you don’t get involved in another person’s election…we don’t do that here just as a matter of rule,” Nix said. “Now the fact that I am leaving my term and we have a runoff going, that I think is very important to the community, I don’t see a problem with it.”

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