Ineligible for office

DA plans to declare council seat vacant after complaint from former DeRidder mayor

Beauregard Parish District Attorney James Lestage plans to declare vacant the seat of a DeRidder city council member whom he says is not eligible to fill the seat he was elected to earlier this year.

Beauregard Parish District Attorney James Lestage released this week his official Written Opinion with Reasons regarding a complaint he said he received earlier this month challenging the eligibility of councilman at-large Michael D. Harris. In his written opinion, Lestage said he found Harris did not have a domiciliary residence within city limits, which is a requirement to serve mandated by the DeRidder City Charter.

The citizen who filed the complaint has been identified as former DeRidder mayor Ron Roberts.

Harris’ eligibility was at the center of a lawsuit filed in May by Roberts through the city of DeRidder while he was in office as the city’s mayor. Both Beauregard Parish judges C. Kerry Anderson and Martha Ann O’Neal recused themselves from the suit, and on Aug. 8, retired Natchitoches Parish Judge Eric Herrington ruled the city failed to follow the Louisiana Election Code. The state election code requires all challenges to eligibility be filed within seven days of the end of qualifying, which would have been in January. 

Harris was elected to the city council in a run-off election in April.

Harris said he will now seek the legal opinion from city council legal representative David Lestage, and said he feels his 4th Amendment Rights have been violated by the local public office and intends to seek judgment from a higher court.

“As a seated and duly elected official, our city attorney works for my office. I will ask him, David Lestage the father of our District Attorney Jimmy Lestage, on what grounds does his son have to represent a citizen on a civil matter. This is not a criminal offense. As many are aware, David Lestage represented the city of DeRidder and Ron Roberts in his losing efforts last month. I will request a higher court to hear this case. Nepotism is unethical and illegal,” Harris said.

District Attorney Lestage told the American Press that any question of the eligibility of an elected official is a complaint to be filed with that region’s district attorney.

 

Lestage’s opinion, in full, is as follows:

District Attorney’s Written Opinion With Reasons In Accordance With La. R.S.18.673

On August 8, 2018 my office did receive a written complaint from Ronald M. Roberts, alleging that Michael Dwayne Harris was elected to the DeRidder City Council as an at-large member on April 28, 2018, and was sworn to uphold the duties of that position on July 2, 2018. The complainant, Roberts, goes on to state that it is his belief that;

1) Mr. Harris was not domiciled within the City of DeRidder within the one year period prior to the qualifications of the office as required by the City Charter of the City of DeRidder, Sec. 2-04(1);

2) Mr. Harris did not live within the City of DeRidder within the one year period prior to qualification of the office as required by the City Charter of the City of DeRidder, Sec. 2-04(1);

3) Mr. Harris does not currently live within the City of DeRidder as required by the City Charter of the City of DeRidder, Sec. 2-04(2).

Complainant Roberts further alleges that it is his belief that Mr. Harris committed a criminal and ethical violation by filing a false public record when “filing for office”. Attached to the complaint was a copy of a voter registration card indicating that Ronald M. Roberts is a registered voter within the city limits of the City of DeRidder. The Beauregard Parish Registrar of Voters Office did verify that Roberts’ registration information is current and valid.

The Charter of the City of DeRidder includes Sec. 2-04 Qualifications. It specifically states that:

1) A council member elected at-large shall have been legally domiciled and shall have actually resided for at least one (1) year immediately preceding the time established by law for qualifying for office in an area which, at the time of qualification, is within the city.

2) A council member shall continue to be legally domiciled and to actually reside within the city.

3) Council members ceasing to possess these qualifications shall be disqualified, creating a vacancy on the council.

La R.S. 18:672 states “when any voter lawfully registered in the district or geographical area from which an office holder has been elected, or from which an office holder has been appointed, or otherwise selected to hold office, has reason to believe that the office holder no longer meets the residence or domicile requirements of that office, the voter may make a written complaint of that fact to the proper official”. La.R.S. 18:671 states, in pertinent part, that “proper official means the District Attorney of the office holder’s designated domicile.” La.R.S. 18:673 states that “within 20 days of the receipt of such written complaint the proper official shall investigate and provide a written opinion, with reasons, as to whether the office holder meets the residence or domicile requirements of the office he holds to the complainant and to the legislative or executive agency, board, commission, governing authority, or other body or entity of the state or of any political subdivision, to which the office holder has been elected or appointed. The opinion shall also be published in the official journal of the parish of the office holder’s designated domicile.”

The first two issues that complainant Roberts raises, along with the criminal and ethical allegations, will be pretermitted for the purposes of this Opinion. Although a review of the public record, including Beauregard Parish mortgage and conveyance records, and tax assessor records, seem to clearly indicate that Mr. Harris was ineligible to hold the office of city council member at-large based on Harris was ineligible to hold the office of city council member-at-large based on the Charter’s requirement in Sec. 2-04(1); an objection to candidacy based on the facts were not asserted within the seven (7) days from the qualifying period by a registered voter within the city limits of DeRidder, as required by the Louisiana Election Code. The third issue raised by complainant Roberts, whether Mr. Harris is currently domiciled and actually residing within the city limits of DeRidder, will be addressed herein in accordance with the Election Code of the State of Louisiana.

As previously noted, the City Charter of the City of DeRidder requires that a council member at-large shall continue to be legally domiciled within the City of DeRidder and shall continue to actually reside within the City of DeRidder.

Domicile 

Louisiana Civil Code Art. 38 defines “domicile” as follows: “The domicile of a natural person is the place of his habitual residence”. C.C. Art 39 states that a person “may reside in several places but may not have more than one domicile”. C.C. Art 44 states that “domicile is maintained until acquisition of a new domicile. A natural person changes his domicile when he moves his residence to another location with the intent to make that location his habitual residence”. Louisiana courts have determined that intent is based on the actual state of facts and not what one declares them to be. Taken into account to determine a person’s intent are things such as where a person sleeps, takes his meals, has established his household, and surrounds himself with the comforts of domestic life. Other factors include where the person is registered to vote, where his motor vehicles are registered, where he maintains bank accounts and receives mail, where he transacts business affairs, and where he leases or owns property. SeeMcClendon v. Bel, (La. App. 1 Cir 9/7/00), 797 So. 2d 700.

Mr. Harris appeared to have been domiciled at 806 Lake Court Drive, DeRidder, Louisiana from at least 2007 until July 2015. The public record indicates that Mr. Harris built and moved into a home at 386 Harmony Trail, DeRidder, Louisiana in 2015. The Harmony Trail address is not within the city limits of DeRidder. He signed a Homestead Exemption Application and filed the same on July 9, 2015, regarding the Harmony Trail property. On January 18, 2017, Mr. Harris filed an application to change his homestead exemption from the Harmony Trail address back to the 806 Lake Court Drive address (which was less than one year as required by the City Charter of DeRidder to be eligible for a council member position). As stated in La.C.C. Art. 44, a person changes his domicile when he moves his residence to another location with the intent to make that location his habitual residence.

Neighbors of Mr. Harris have been interviewed regarding Mr. Harris and his family and their use of the property at 386 Harmony Trail. Every neighbor interviewed stated that Michael Harris and his family use the property as their family home and habitual residence. Even though the Homestead Exemption Application was filed to indicate a change of habitual residence in January of 2017, neighbors insist that there has been no such change.

Residency 

The City Charter of the City of DeRidder requires that a council member at-large has a continuing obligation to “actually reside” within the city limits of DeRidder. Several Louisiana cases have discussed the legal implications of “actually” or “actual” as it describes residency or domicile. These courts point out that “actually” is used to require a higher standard of residence – or a more regular presence – to limit political office to citizens who actually live in the district that they represent. The courts point out that the apparent intent of legislation requiring “actually”, in terms of residence or domicile, was to eliminate a system under which candidates would establish a “political domicile” from which to seek office even though they choose to live and maintain their families in another area and were not truly representative of the district in which they sought election. Davis v. English, 660 So. 2d 576 @ 579.

It appears to be true that Michael Harris and his family did move from Lake Court Drive within the city limits of DeRidder to Harmony Trail, which is outside the city limits of DeRidder, and properly filed for homestead exemption at Harmony Trail. Lake Court became a property for Mr. Harris’ relative(s). According to Mr. Harris, his daughter and son-in-law currently reside in the house. Mr. Harris further stated that he stays at the house overnight from time to time as his parents are elderly and live nearby. My investigation reveals that Mr. Harris resides primarily (and almost solely) at Harmony Trail, and has done so since 2015. Although the Homestead Application was changed to Lake Court, Mr. Harris’ residence and domicile on Harmony Trail never changed.

Conclusion 

My investigation reveals that Michael D. Harris obviously has a strong desire to represent the citizens of DeRidder, Louisiana. Further, Mr. Harris has a great many connections and ties to the City of DeRidder, including, but not limited to his property at 806 Lake Court. Unfortunately, the property at Lake Court does not appear to legally qualify Mr. Harris’ domicile nor does it appear to qualify as Mr. Harris’ actual residence.

The City Charter of the City of DeRidder clearly establishes a continuing obligation on a council member at-large to maintain his domicile in, and actually reside in, the City of DeRidder. Although Mr. Harris has expressed, and no doubt has, a real desire to serve the citizens of DeRidder, he does not meet, and has not met the continuing dual obligations to be domiciled and actually reside within the city. Therefore, it is my opinion, that Michael D. Harris is not qualified to hold the office of DeRidder City Council Member At-Large. It is my duty, in accordance with La.R.S. 18:674, to file suit in the 36th Judicial District Court within ten (10) days of this report to declare Mr. Harris’ office “vacant”. 

Respectfully submitted, James R. Lestage; District Attorney.

Councilman Michael D. Harris, elected in April, said he intends to seek judgment from a higher court.  

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Former DeRidder mayor Ron Roberts (left) challenged the candidacy of Mike D. Harris (right) 

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