Ruling expected within 10 days on domicile debate
The judge presiding over a court battle to determine the eligibility of a DeRidder city council member has said he will announce his ruling in the next ten days.
Retired Natchitoches Parish Judge Eric Herrington gave both sides of the case 72 hours to email him their final written arguments on Monday after a lengthy day of testimonies to debate the qualification of city councilman at-large Michael D. Harris.
The hearing was held in accordance with a lawsuit filed last month by District Attorney James Lestage to declare Harris’ seat vacant after he said an investigation conducted by his office showed that Harris did not have a domiciliary residence within DeRidder’s city limits — a requirement mandated by the city’s charter.
On the witness stand, Harris claimed to have dual residency at both a home on Harmony Trail that is outside of city limits, and on Lake Court Drive which is within city limits. He said he stayed at the Lake Court Drive home “habitually” at least once a week, but also testified that he spent more of his nights at the Harmony Trail address.
Harris’ wife, Elizabeth Harris, said that the couple built their home on Harmony Trail in 2015 to have “a safe haven” and escape the demands of their life on Lake Court Drive.
“We are very active in the Lake Court community and we needed a place to get away and regroup from time to time. That is why we decided to build another home. We kept our home on Lake Court Drive for our family and children for whenenever they are in need,” she testified.
Both Harris’ provided their driver’s licenses which notes the Lake Court address, however Lestage provided documentation from the Department of Motor Vehicles showing that the family’s vehicles were registered with the Harmony Trail address.
Harris said he did so because he considers the Harmony Trail home his “mailing address”.
“My intent was to get my mail at my Harmony Trail address,” Harris stated. “I did this in February of 2017 having no idea I would be sitting here today. This was all new to me.”
Lestage also provided documentation that the couple’s 11 year-old son was registered at school with the Harmony Trail address noted as both his physical and mailing address. Despite having been signed by Harris’ wife, she claimed on the witness stand that the information was “incorrect”.
Last week, a stipulation was filed in the case to include sworn testimony by Harris’ son. Those statements were said to have been questions answered by Harris how he believed his son would have answered. Lestage, Harris and Harris’ attorney Michael McHale approved and signed the document in an agreement to keep Harris’ son from having to testify in court. Those statements were that the child mostly lives on Harmony Trail with his parents, where he also eats his meals and has a room with his belongings.
One of Lestage’s chief arguments in his case was the homestead exemption of Harris’ Lake Court Drive home. The exemption was moved to the Harmony Trail address in 2015, but in January 2017 that exemption was moved back to the Lake Court home.
Harris first testified that he did so after speaking with former DeRidder mayor Ron Roberts to discuss the eligibility requirements of being a city council member, and on his second call to the stand he elaborated that the change was also made because that address had remained his family home.
Lestage called multiple residents living on Harmony Trail to testify that they recognized Harris as their neighbor, and that they saw him regularly throughout the week at the Harmony Trail home. McHale later pointed out that no residents on Lake Court Drive were approached by investigators.
“I believe that shows they already had their minds made up in their investigation,” McHale stated.
According to state law, the term “domicile” is defined as a place where a person intends to make his habitual residence, and that while a person may have more than one residence, they may only have one domicile.
“Louisiana courts have determined that intent is based on the actual state of facts and not what one declares them to be,” Lestage stated in his opinion in August.
Michael D. Harris claimed to have dual residency at both a home on Harmony Trail that is outside of city limits, and on Lake Court Drive which is within city limits.
Former DeRidder mayor Ron Roberts (left) challenged the candidacy of Mike D. Harris (right)