Patty Durand and Shelia Edwards recently found themselves in similar positions in their quests to each become a Georgia Public Service Commissioner. Both Democrats, running in separate races, faced challenges to their candidacy based on where they live.

  • Last-minute challenge snarls PSC challenger's candidacy

Neither resided within the recently redrawn borders of the district from which they were running for the required 12 months. But Durand had tried to meet the residency requirement, moving into the district in June and again in March, chasing the district's moving boundary. Edwards, meanwhile, stayed put in Cobb County, which wasn't her district either before or after lawmakers massaged the maps.

Nevertheless, the same Administrative Law Judge, Shakara Barnes, decided Durand did not meet the residency requirement while Edwards did.

Who's who

Durand, an energy consultant, is running in District 2. She moved to Gwinnett County in June of last year when it was still in District 2. When Republican lawmakers and sitting Republican PSC commissioners redrew the map in March, they drew Gwinnett out knowing that Durand live there. She had already raised more than $110,000 for her campaign when the redistricting went into effect on the last business day before the beginning of Georgia’s candidate qualification period on Monday, March 7.

Durand immediately moved to Rockdale County in an attempt to stay in the district and prevent a challenge to her candidacy.

Shelia Edwards, who publishes an online newspaper called Spotlight South Cobb News, is running for the District 3 seat. She lives in Cobb County, which wasn't in District 3 before or after redistricting. It's District 5.

What's the PSC?

If you're not familiar with what the Georgia Public Service Commission does or how it's elected, you're not alone. In other states similar agencies are called the Public Utility Commission, which is a bit clearer because its main job is to regulate the monopoly utilities like Georgia Power. As such, this five-member panel has a lot of influence over Georgians' pocketbooks.

Still, these down ballot PSC races fly under the radar of many voters, as Durand explained in her residency hearing.

“If you're mayor, you don't have to explain, or governor or senator or representative, you don't have to explain to anybody what that role is,” she said. “But for Public Service Commissioner, nobody knows what it is.”

Old districts, new districts

PSC commissioners are elected statewide, but they must reside in their district for at least 12 months prior to the general election. No other statewide office operates under this system. Making it even harder to keep track, the commissioners serve for six year terms in staggered elections. Or they're supposed to serve six-year terms. Of the five sitting commissioners, all Republicans, three were initially appointed to their seat to serve unexpired terms. They are Chairman Tricia Pridemore, Commissioner Jason Shaw and Commissioner Fitz Johnson.

That makes for a lot of out-of-sync elections. When the governor appoints a commissioner, the remaining term is shortened to last only until the next general election. That's what happened with Johnson, whom Gov. Brian Kemp appointed to fill the seat of District 3 seat of Chuck Eaton last summer when Kemp named the night-school attorney with no courtroom experience as a new Fulton County Superior Judge.

Prior to his appointment, Johnson didn't live in his district. He was a resident of Cobb County where he ran unsuccessfully for County Commission in 2020. State records indicate he registered to vote as a Fulton County resident on July 8, 2021. Kemp announced his appointment to the District 3 seat, which includes Fulton, on July 21, 2021.

Had Eaton remained in the seat, which he won in a 2018 runoff after a nuclear power trade group spent nearly $1 million supporting him, he would have been up for reelection in 2024.

The District 2 race is on its planned six-year election cycle after incumbent Tim Echols was last elected in 2016.

Durand's case

Durand moved to Gwinnett County last summer. She announced her candidacy for the PSC District 2 position from there and by December raised $110,000 for her campaign. This spring the Georgia General Assembly, with input from PSC Chairman Tricia Pridemore, redrew the district lines to exclude Gwinnett and add Rockdale County to District 2. Lawmakers signed the new districts into law March 4. Durand then moved to Rockdale County that same weekend and qualified as a candidate.

It looked like she was going to make it through the primary without a residency challenge, but in late April, Johnny Crist of Gwinnett County filed one. He's a Republican politician, Echols' supporter and evangelical minister from Lilburn.

At Durand’s disqualification hearing on May 12, she argued she will have lived in District 2 for more than a year by the time the Nov. 8 election arrives. (Find a link to the audio of the hearing here.)

“I would have been a resident of District 2 for a year and a half because I lived in District 2 for almost a year when Gwinnett County was in District 2, and now I live in District 2 in Rockdale County for seven months prior to the election. That's a year and a half.”

Administrative Law Judge Shakara Barnes didn't add it up the same way.

“Georgia law requires that “[i]n order to be elected as a member of the commission
from a Public Service Commission District, a person shall have resided in that district for at least 12 months prior to election thereto.” O.C.G.A. § 46-2-1(b). The evidence shows that Respondent will not have resided within one of the counties in PSC District 2 as described in O.C.G.A. § 46-2-1(c) for at least 12 months by the time of the general election on November 8, 2022, she wrote in her decision. “Respondent thus does not meet the durational residency requirement for PSC District 2.”

Edwards' case

Edwards made no claim of residency. (Find a link to the audio of the hearing here.) Instead, she pointed to a possible loophole concerning unexpired terms. The law reads (emphasis added):

“The members in office on January 1, 2022, and any member appointed or elected to fill a vacancy . . . prior to the expiration of a term of office shall continue to serve out their respective terms of office.”

Edwards' attorney argued that because she is seeking to fill an unexpired term that ends on December 31, 2024, the residency requirement would not apply to Edwards.

Assistant Attorney General Lee M. Stoy Jr. was incredulous.

“Miss Edwards' arguments simply are a strained interpretation of Section 46-2-1; they read words into the statute,” he told the judge. “They reorganize words to meet her arguments. And that is not how statutory interpretation is conducted.”

But Judge Barnes agreed with Edwards.

“In the present case, the plain meaning of O.C.G.A. § 46-2- 1 indicates that the residency requirement would not apply to fill the current unexpired PSC District 3 term,” Barnes wrote.

Aftermath

With the residency question cleared in her favor, Edwards went on to win the three-way race for the Democratic nomination for District 3 on May 24. She faces Republican Fitz Johnson in November.

Durand's path to the general election is in limbo.

With Judge Barnes' recommendation in hand, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger disqualified Durand less than 24 hours before voters began arriving at polls on primary day. But after an emergency hearing that morning, Durand was granted an emergency stay. Raffensperger's office advised county boards of elections first that Durand was disqualified and sent a notice to that effect to display at polling places. Then a few hours later Raffensperger's office got word of the emergency ruling and told county boards she was back in the race.

The results of these notifications were not uniform. Chatham County, for example, did not ever advise voters that Durand was disqualified. The Glynn County Board of Elections listed Durand as disqualified on its web site as recently as June 4.

Durand appealed her disqualification, but a hearing had not been scheduled more than three weeks after the primary.

Personal redistricting

Georgia redistricts every 10 years to equalize population among districts after each census. The population deviations among the PSC districts in the existing map were at 9.94% before they were redrawn. Democrats in the state legislature argued the PSC redistricting wasn't legally necessary. For one thing, residency districts are not subject to redistricting requirements the way electoral districts are, they said. Bedsides, they argued, reconfiguration was unnecessary because the population deviance was still below the 10-percent threshold the Supreme Court held to be constitutional. They lost on both points.

Redistricting has clear political agendas, too. In this case Durand alleges, with text messages between Echols and Pridemore about Durand's address, that Republicans were trying to redistrict her out of the race.

But Echols testified about having a personal goal for redistricting. He wants to move to Tybee Island.

He began pushing for Chatham to be included in his district in January 2021 when Chuck Eaton was chairman of the PSC and thus the commission's liaison with the legislature for redistricting.

“I'd sent him a note about trying to get Savannah into my district if he was able to,” Echols testified. “The Chairman represents the PSC at the legislature and we were spending a lot of time in Savannah, particularly on Tybee Island. And I had hoped to move there. It's three counties away (from the previous District 2) and I needed the entire county of Chatham chapter to be put in my district.

Echols also spoke to a legislative mapmaker when he encountered him at lunch at the Capitol one day, he said.

“I think and I said to him, ‘Hey, when y'all draw those maps next year, I'm trying to move to Tybee. So I just want to give you a heads up I'm trying to get down there.' He said something like, ‘We'll get to that next year.' So he didn't make any promises. But I had, I knew that he was kind of a cartographer guy. And I just wanted to give him a heads up because this was really important.”

Echols got his wish. District 2 now stretches more than 250 miles with Tybee at its southern tip. Echols still lives in Jackson County near his district's northern tip.

Mary Landers is a reporter for Stanley R. Boxer in Coastal Georgia with more than two decades of experience focusing on the environment. Contact her at mary.landers@stanleyrboxer.com She covered climate and...