Fayette County

Judge rules for councilman in campaign laws

Lexington 1st District Council member James Brown
Lexington 1st District Council member James Brown Photo provided

Fayette Circuit Judge Kimberly Bunnell has ruled in favor of Lexington 1st District Councilman James Brown in a lawsuit that challenged his candidacy.

Brown, 39, defeated challenger Jim Burton in the November election for a two-year term. Days before the election, a lawsuit was filed alleging that Brown had only 86 of the 100 signatures required to run for office.

After a 90-minute hearing Monday, Bunnell ruled that Brown had 119 signatures, which was 19 more than necessary.

Brown said he was relieved that “this is behind me and I can focus on the work downtown.”

If there was a lesson to be learned by the episode, Brown said, it is that a candidate must make sure he has enough signatures to withstand any challenge.

“I had a lot of support out there in the community,” Brown said.

Christine Trout, the attorney representing plaintiff Jeremy O’Dell Law, said, “We’re disappointed, but we respect the court’s ruling.”

Brown was appointed to the position in April by Mayor Jim Gray after former councilman Chris Ford stepped down to become the city’s social services commissioner.

Brown defeated Burton, a first-time candidate, in the only Urban County Council race on the ballot. It was a nonpartisan race.

The charter of the Urban County Government says that a candidate for city office must get 100 signatures of “qualified voters of an individual district.”

The lawsuit alleged that an entire page of signatures had no backup notarization, which would have invalidated 12 signatures on that page. Another page containing 18 signatures was notarized by the person collecting the signatures. The lawsuit alleged that someone cannot notarize his own signature.

In addition, the lawsuit alleged that people signed the petition who were not registered to vote, do not live in the district or whose signatures were illegible.

Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins Jr. testified that his audit showed that of 133 signatures, 13 could not be used because the people did not live in the district, could not be identified or were not registered voters.

That left Brown with 120 valid signatures, Blevins said.

Blevins counted as valid the signature of a person who signed the candidacy petitions for both Brown and Burton. The Urban County charter says that signatures that appear on two candidates’ petitions cancel each other out and shouldn’t be counted.

Don Todd, the attorney for Brown, cited a 2006 ruling by Fayette Circuit Judge Gary Payne that had allowed the signatures of voters who had signed the petitions for opposing Urban County Council candidates. In that case, Payne said he was convinced that the campaign of Julian Beard’s opponent, Bill Roberts, had intentionally tried to invalidate Beard’s candidacy petition by seeking out duplicate signatures.

Bunnell said “I’m going to make the decision to follow the charter” and decided to not count the duplicate signature in this case, reducing Brown’s total number of signatures to 119.

The judge also ruled as valid the two pages of signatures that the plaintiff had sought to disqualify.