Submitted by Scott Golding
July 24, 2019 8:33 a.m.
There has been quite a bit published recently about the disputes between Nassau County and Raydient. Many of these items have dealt with questions about integrity — right versus wrong. So, for integrity’s sake, I should disclose that I work for Rayonier. Many readers will assume that this is why I am writing this piece. However, I think the following should be shared whether the County and Rayonier are at odds or if they were the best of friends. I acknowledge that Rayonier may appreciate or even agree with my opinion shared here, but I am not writing this because of the paycheck I receive. For me, this is all about integrity; living where I do and seeing what I see, I feel a responsibility to put these facts in front of our community.
So: Reside. Webster says it means “to dwell permanently or continuously” in a place. Florida law requires that County Commissioners must reside in the district they represent throughout the full term of their office. The Florida Constitution provides that a “failure to maintain the residence requirement when elected or appointed” causes a vacancy in office to occur. The meaning of the residency requirement has been challenged more than once over the years, and both the Attorney General’s office and the state’s Election Board have issued opinions affirming this requirement — a copy of the State Election Board’s letter is attached; both letters are available on the offices’ websites. With that backdrop, you should know that if you reside in Nassau County, and especially District One, you are currently represented by Commissioner Leeper in clear violation of both the Florida Constitution and state election law.
In the January 18th edition of the News-Leader, an article was published in which Commissioner Leeper responded to an anonymous letter that questioned his residency and eligibility to serve. The article states “Leeper reiterated to the News-Leader that his home address is on Pirates Bay Drive, in District One, in Fernandina Beach…” Mr. Leeper is quoted as saying “I moved in with my parents some time ago after both were hospitalized… It’s where I still live.” He also says “I have tried to do the right thing according to the law … so I could continue to serve”. A full reading of the article makes it clear that Mr. Leeper understands the requirements of the law, and that he bases his continued service on residing with his parents.
The problem is that he does not reside with his parents. I live across the street from them and have a good view of their home and the comings-and-goings there. Mr. Leeper does occasionally visit them, but that’s all. Since the News Leader article in January, I’ve been watching the neighborhood more closely, and I have only seen Mr. Leeper in the neighborhood a couple of times — and never overnight. His permanent and continuous home is clearly not here with his parents. And does anyone really believe that he resides anywhere other than at his beautiful, half-million dollar riverfront home in District Two, where his wife and her children also live? (Mrs. Leeper has claimed homestead on the property, so we know SHE does reside there.) Mr. Leeper has “painted himself into a corner” with his response to the News-Leader. He clearly understands the residency requirement. He claims no other residence in District One. It is clear that his claim of legitimacy is based on residing with his parents. Since he doesn’t reside with them, the only conclusion I can reach is that he is being knowingly dishonest.
The District One commission seat is legally vacant because Mr. Leeper has moved outside his district. Nonetheless, he is still voting on the County Commission, and participating in the county’s policy-making. First (and foremost), this is a huge ethical lapse. Second, the ethical lapse seems likely to come back and bite the county: it is certainly plausible that some unhappy party will pick up on this issue and sue the county over a decision they disagree with, because 20% of the Commission’s votes are being cast by an ineligible party. Third, District Two is getting double representation, while those of us that reside in District One are getting none. We can’t get fair representation from someone who lives in a different district that has different perspectives and challenges — which is the very reason that the constitution requires that one commissioner reside in each district.
The BOCC’s integrity problem is big enough that it requires a dramatic course change. It is time for integrity to retake the front seat in Nassau County government. Step one, Mr. Leeper, is your resignation.
DE 78-19 – March 21, 1978
Residency Requirement; County Commissioner
ART. VIII, S. 1(3) & ART. X,
S. 3, FLA. CONST. (1968)
SS. 99.032, F.S. (1977)
To: Honorable Neil T. Kinnear, Jr., Supervisor of Elections, Room 212, Hernando County Courthouse, Brooksville, Florida 33512
Prepared by: Division of Elections
You have requested an opinion of this office in answer to substantially the following question:
Does the residency requirement for a candidate for county commissioner continue beyond qualification and through the term of office?
Your question is answered in the affirmative.
A candidate for the office of county commissioner is required at the time of filing his/her qualifying papers to be a resident of the commission district from which he qualifies, s. 99.032, F.S. (1977). This statute was amended by the 1977 legislature to delete a previously mandated six months prior residence which was invalidated by the courts. Wilson v. Newell. 223 So.2d 734 (Fla. 1969). The law was also amended to expressly require residence at the time of qualifying. By doing so the legislature has removed the office of county commissioner from the doctrine that qualification for office are required to be met at the time of election. State ex rel. Fair v. Adams, 139 So.2d 879 (Fla. 1962); Davis ex rel. Taylor v. Crawford, 95 Fla. 338,116 So. 41 (Fla. 1928); Op Atty Gen. 074-293 (September 23,1974). This office is the only one required by statute to be a resident at the time of qualifying.
The members of the board of county commissioners are elected by the voters of the entire county, but one commissioner must reside in each of the commission districts. Art. VIII, s. 1(3), Fla. Const.
(1968). It was to insure compliance with this constitutional requirement that the legislature enacted s. 99.032, F.S., described above.
It is clear that the statute imposes a residency requirement at the time of qualifying as a candidate for county commissioner. This is a continuing requirement as the constitution provides that a “failure to maintain the residence requirement when elected or appointed” causes a vacancy in office to occur. Art. X, s. 3, Fla. Const. (1968). The Supreme Court has held that the failure of a school board member to maintain residency during her term of office created a vacancy. State ex rel. Askew v. Thomas, 293 So. 2d 40 (Fla. 1974).
Accordingly, it seems clear from the state constitution and Supreme Court’s decisions that an initial residency requirement is a continuing one and the failure to maintain throughout the term of office creates a vacancy.
A county commissioner must maintain residence in the district from which elected for the duration of the term of office, otherwise a vacancy in office is created.
Editor’s Note: Scott began his career doing technology work for a Rayonier pulp mill in Washington State. Starting in 1991, his work often brought him to Rayonier’s Fernandina mill, and he moved to Fernandina full-time in 1997 when the company offered him a permanent position. He is a graduate of the American Institute for Computer Science and a technology leadership program of Columbia Business School. He is an Eagle Scout and spends his free time as a father of 4 boys, as a Scoutmaster, and as a youth pastor.