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Nathan Miller

Originally published: 2013-05-09 17:48:11
Last modified: 2013-05-09 17:52:01

Blog challenges Miller's eligibility

Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Miller is facing criticism from liberal blog WataugaWatch for living outside the district he was elected to represent in 2010.

In a post Wednesday titled "Is Nathan Miller legally serving on the county commission?" author Jerry Williamson questioned whether Miller and County Attorney Stacy "Four" Eggers are correctly interpreting an ordinance they believe allows a commissioner to live outside his district while serving.

Miller, a Republican, was elected in 2010 from within District 5, which includes the precincts of Bald Mountain, Elk, Meat Camp, North Fork and Stony Fork.

He said in an interview Wednesday that he moved in January just over the border into the Blue Ridge precinct, which is in District 1. He added that the move was temporary, as he has pur chased land in District 5 and intends to build a home there and return.

At question is whether the action conflicts with state or county law and makes him ineligible to continue serving.

A Watauga County ordinance passed in 1975 created the current system of a five-member board elected from five districts with staggered terms.

The document orders that the county have five districts "with the (board) members residing in and representing the districts according to the following apportionment plan." It then outlines which precincts make up each district.

Board of Elections Director Jane Hodges confirmed that when a referendum on the change was posed to voters in 1975, the ballot question stated in part, "Members of the board shall reside in and represent the districts according to the following appropriation plan."

Hodges added that her office has no duty to rule on officials' eligibility after the election is over.
The question has arisen for other Watauga County commissioners in the past.

In spring 2012, Commissioner Tim Futrelle, a Democrat, sought advice from county staff about whether he could live outside his district while serving, according to email records.

"The short answer is that we need to check the ordinance adopted by the commissioners in establishing the district system and see if they have a residency requirement in there for continued service," Eggers, the Republican county attorney, said in an email. "I don't have access to that document, but if it has such a requirement, it would be binding in reference to continued service. If there is no continued residency requirement in that ordinance (or its amendments), then the rule would be a commissioner could continue to serve, so long as they reside in the county."

Eggers noted that under the North Carolina Constitution, a person seeking elected office must be eligible to vote in the election for the seat they are seeking.

"Since our commissioners are elected at large, even though they are nominated by district, this clause would be met by continuing to reside in Watauga County," Eggers wrote.

Eggers apparently did review the local ordinance later, as an email in May 2012 from County Manager Deron Geouque notified Futrelle that he was considered eligible to continue serving.

"Based on the attached document (the local ordinance) and discussions with the County Attorney, as long as you remain a resident of Watauga County there is not a requirement for you to live in your jurisdiction to complete your term," Geouque wrote. "However, it would have been an issue had you decided to run for re-election as you would have been required to live in your appropriate district."

Eggers affirmed that he agreed with Geouque's comments.

Miller said he was aware of the advice Futrelle had received about the matter, but also checked with Eggers to verify when he faced the issue this year.

Miller said Wednesday his understanding was: "You have to live in your district to run, but you only have to live in the county to serve."

Miller said he believed the question also had been asked by former commissioner Jimmy Hodges, who served in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

He said he felt that he was still adequately representing the interests of District 5 residents despite not living there.

"I'm still down there all the time," he said. "... I still communicate with those constituents, just like I communicate with all constituents of the county."

If someone were to challenge the interpretation of the ordinance, it would likely require the courts to make a final determination.

Miller said he felt he was being targeted purely because of politics.

"Now, it's an issue because they hate me," he said.