ALPHARETTA, Ga. — City Clerk Erin Cobb released a hearing decision Tuesday, Sept. 14, where she determined that local realtor Donna Murphy is eligible to run for City Council Post 1.
Murphy qualified for the Post 1 seat Aug. 18, challenging Councilman Donald Mitchell who is seeking a third full term in this year’s municipal election.
On Aug. 31, Alpharetta resident Clifford Martin filed a formal challenge with the City Clerk’s Office, alleging that Murphy was not eligible to run for office.
Cobb presided over a hearing at City Hall Monday, Sept. 13 to adjudicate the challenge. In Alpharetta, like most other Georgia cities, the city clerk is the highest-ranking elections officer.
Martin, who has run for seats on the council twice in the past five years, represented himself at the hearing.
Martin raises questions
Alpharetta’s city charter lists four qualifications candidates must meet to seek elected office; they must “have been a resident of the city for six months prior to the date of election, shall have attained the age of 21 years prior to the date of election, shall continue to reside in the city during that member’s period of service, and shall be registered and qualified to vote in municipal elections of this city.”
Martin challenged two of those qualifications; alleging Murphy is not a resident of Alpharetta and that she is not properly registered and qualified to vote in the city’s municipal elections.
Martin presented documents from the Forsyth County Board of Assessors signed by both Murphy and her husband that state they have claimed a homestead property tax exemption on a home in the Polo Fields subdivision in Cumming since 2016.
Homestead exemptions allow residents to lower their overall property tax bill by sheltering a portion of their home’s value from its taxable value. Martin argued having a homestead exemption on the Cumming property indicates Murphy considers that to be her primary residence.
Martin read from a blank application, which states under Georgia Law, the undersigned declares the property as their “primary legal residence for all purposes whatsoever” and neither them nor their spouse “currently claim or receive any form of homestead exemption on any other property.”
“I understand it is my duty to notify the Tax Commissioner of Forsyth County, or an official assign thereof, if for any reason I should become ineligible for homestead exemption on this property,” it states.
As of Friday, Sept. 10, Martin said, Murphy had not notified anyone at the Forsyth County Board of Assessors of any changes. Murphy later said she didn’t know it was something she had to do. Consequently, Martin accused Murphy of potentially committing a felony by registering to vote in Alpharetta and Fulton County if her primary residence is in Forsyth County.
He referenced records from the Secretary of State’s Office that show Murphy registered to vote in Fulton County in May 2019, when she leased an apartment on Orchid Lane. Then in March, she changed her voter registration to her new apartment on Commerce Street, which she began to lease in February.
Lastly, Martin presented a Facebook post Murphy made on her birthday in February. The post thanks Private Chef Michael Oh for preparing “an amazing dinner at our home to celebrate the occasion.” In the attached photo, Martin said Murphy appeared to be at her Forsyth County property.
“So even as late as February of this year,” Martin said, “on social media, she is declaring publicly that her home is the house in Forsyth County. It is not the apartment [on Commerce Street in Alpharetta]. So, based upon the evidence that I have provided here, I request that her qualifications to run for office be revoked and that she be removed from the ballot.”
Prior to the hearing, Martin said he was making the challenge to preserve the integrity of the election process for the community. He has been an Alpharetta homeowner for 30 years.
“I am a retired IT director,” Martin said. “Those that know me, know that I don’t make accusations without having facts to back them up. There was another candidate that raised red flags for this election, but I couldn’t find enough facts to launch a challenge against this other candidate, so I didn’t.”
Murphy defends her qualifications
During the hearing, Murphy stood her ground about her qualifications to run for City Council.
“I am not leaving this race or my hometown,” Murphy said. “I am here to stay.”
As the basis for her decision, Cobb cited state law and the Georgia Supreme Court ruling Murphy’s attorney Bryan Tyson referenced in Murphy’s defense.
Tyson said there are 15 rules Georgia law lists to determine the residence of an individual running for office. And in 2008, he said, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in a case between then-Secretary of State Karen Handel and James Powell, who was a candidate running for the District 4 Georgia Public Service Commission, all 15 rules have to be considered.
Tyson said the ruling showed homestead exemption alone cannot be used to decide someone’s legal residence, and the residence of someone’s spouse cannot be used to determine the residence of a candidate. The candidate’s residence must be considered individually, he said.
According to the Forsyth County Board of Assessors, a couple can also maintain homestead exemption so long as one of the individuals has their primary residence there. In Murphy’s case, Tyson said, it’s her husband.
"So, even if there’s some issue with the 2019 date, which there’s not, she had residency established in February of 2021,” Tyson said. “It’s where she pays rent, it’s where her driver’s license is located, it’s where she’s registered to vote, it’s where her vehicles are registered, it’s where she’s received utility bills and pays them, and every single one of those factors weighs and shows her legal residence is the City of Alpharetta under the Georgia Code.”
Tyson presented copies of those documents to Cobb and called on Murphy to testify. He also showed copies of an email Murphy received from Georgia Power when she established service at the apartment on Commerce Street in March.
Additionally, Tyson said a person can have their legal residence in one place but stay somewhere else temporarily. Murphy admitted she temporarily stayed at her home in Forsyth County during the COVID-19 pandemic but said she did not plan to make it or either of her two other Georgia properties her primary residence and has no intention of leaving Alpharetta.
Tyson said Martin had added “a new round in terms of her eligibility and accused Mrs. Murphy of many crimes,” but the sole issue was his challenge to her residency. He asked Murphy about her reaction to Martin’s challenge.
“My character and integrity have never been questioned,” Murphy said. “I’ve never appeared in court or had to hire an attorney to speak on my behalf. It was difficult. It took me by surprise, but I know that I speak the truth. … And I feel confident in what we presented today.”
Following Cobb’s decision, Murphy said her campaign will now focus on working hard to earn the confidence of Alpharetta voters.
“We were confident of the outcome all along, and [we are] very appreciative of the strongly worded ruling in my favor,” Murphy said. “This is my first time running for office, and I’m excited about the opportunity to serve my hometown — the place where I grew up.”
Martin, however, said he disagreed with Cobb’s decision and planned to file an appeal as soon as Friday, Sept. 17.
“I do not believe the city clerk weighed all of the evidence evenly,” Martin said. “It is my plan to appeal the decision, and if that means taking it to court and letting a judge decide, then so be it, but Mrs. Murphy is not a primary legal resident of Alpharetta.”
“I’m also intending to ask the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office to invalidate her voter registration in Fulton County, because Forsyth County, even as of Monday, still considered her to be a legal resident,” he said. “I believe people need to follow the law, especially if they’re running for public office. And having served on the Alpharetta City Board of Ethics, I can’t sit by and let somebody basically lie.”