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Judge rules in Jones’ favor on challenge appeal

POSTED: May 22, 2014 9:17 p.m.

An Effingham County Superior Court judge has ruled that the board of elections’ decision to dismiss a challenge to Commissioner Vera Jones’ candidacy will stand.

Judge Gates Peed made his three-page ruling Wednesday, and it was filed with the clerk of courts office Thursday. An hour-long hearing was held May 15 on the elections board’s April 4 decision to grant a motion to dismiss Andrew Brantley’s challenge to Jones’ candidacy.

“In reviewing the record, nothing has been shown which supports the claim that any public funds are being held unlawfully by the candidate,” the judge wrote in his order. “The Board was authorized to find the candidate had affirmatively established her qualifications as a candidate.”

Jones, the District 2 commissioner, won her re-election bid Tuesday.

Brantley, represented by attorney Warren Ratchford, contended that Jones was the holder of public money, after a 2007 payment for $739,000 was made to her construction company, after it installed water and sewer lines to connect two developments to the county’s system.

The challenge argued that Jones’ company, DM Jones Construction, was to be paid back through impact fees, and she was holding nearly $590,000 not yet due to her.

Judge Peed noted that seven current and former county commissioners signed affidavits that said the county had requested the repayment and that the county had not obligated itself to pay the company for the work. However, he ruled, “the record does not show a formal resolution was passed asking for the money to be returned. Rather, other evidence in the Superintendent’s record indicates the money was properly paid.”

The judge said letters from Eric Gotwalt, the county attorney, and Jon Hart, the attorney for Chatham County who was brought in as special counsel for the Effingham commissioners, affirmed Jones’ company was due the payment.

Judge Peed also said both sides were given an opportunity to be heard and to present evidence.

“In considering the motion to dismiss, particularly in light of there being no evidence to support the petitioner’s claim that any money was being unlawfully held, the court finds the board was within its discretion to consider the motion to dismiss and did not violate any rights of the petitioner,” he wrote in his ruling.

The judge also said the use of a state Supreme Court decision, Haynes v. Wells, a 2000 case, to support their case that the burden of proof fell on Jones for her candidate qualifications applied only to legitimate challenges. She was not the holder of public funds, he said, that affected the legitimacy of  their challenge.

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