Despite the Hillsdale City Council’s determination that Peter Jennings, associate professor of management at Hillsdale College and Hillsdale Ward 1 resident, is ineligible to run for a seat on the council due to a residency restriction, his name will appear on the November ballot, local election officials decided last week.
Jennings entered the race for Ward 1 councilmember this spring, but city officials realized in July that Jennings had only lived in Hillsdale for two years, thus violating city rules about residency requirements for candidates.
Discussion over the Hillsdale City charter’s durational residency restriction and whether or not it would stand in court led to different conclusions between the city and the county’s election commissions.
The city charter states that persons running for office “shall have been a resident of the city for at least three years immediately prior to the date of the election at which he is a candidate for office.” It further clarifies that councilmembers should live in the respective ward in which they are running for at least six months prior to the election.
That fact, however, did not prevent City Clerk Steve French from placing Jennings’ name on the ballot when Jennings submitted his paperwork earlier this spring.
French confirmed that he accepted Jennings’ paperwork and placed his name on the ballot for the Aug. 7 primary, despite the fact that Jennings has only lived in city limits for two years.
“The issue came to light at the end of July when one of the councilmembers brought it up,” French said.
The City Council held a special meeting on Aug. 1 to discuss Jennings’ eligibility, which ended in a 5 – 2 vote to uphold the charter and declare Jennings ineligible to run for office.
Matthew Bell, Ward 4 member of City Council and director of programs for external affairs at Hillsdale College, voted in favor of upholding the charter.
“I have been vocal about sticking to the City Charter since I was elected,” he said in an email. “This decision was in line with that.”
Bell added that the charter as it stands currently can only be changed by the people of Hillsdale. “It would take another vote of the people to change it,” he said. “I am open to any proposal that changes the requirement, though I would not seek to make the change myself.”
Greg Stuchell, current Ward 1 representative, voted to waive the residency requirements for Jennings. He said the city manager, the city clerk, and the city attorney said Jennings is eligible to run for office.
“That’s why I made my decision,” he said.
Stuchell said that election laws are both crucial and critical.
“Before the voter sees the ballot, it has been validated and confirmed,” he said.
After the council found him ineligible, Jennings submitted a letter to French, requesting his name to be removed from the general election ballot in November, as ballots for the Aug. 7 primary were already printed.
Jennings won the primary election with 68 votes, beating opponents Dennis Wainscott and Ted Jansen, who received 45 and 42 votes, respectively.
“After the council decided I was ineligible, I tried to remove myself from the process so as to not cause more confusion,” Jennings said.
The city’s election commission met Aug. 30 to determine the city’s standpoint regarding whose names would appear on the November ballot. The commission concluded that Jennings’ name should be removed.
Marney Kast, the Hillsdale county clerk and a member of the County Election Commission, said that in preparation for the county’s election meeting on Aug. 31, she conferred with the Board of Commissioners chairman and sought legal counsel, which decided that Jennings could appear on the ballot, contrary to what the City Election Commission decided just the day before.
Kast said during Friday’s meeting, French urged the county to uphold the city’s decision to remove Jennings from the election.
“We could not concur with that decision,” Kast said.
Both Kast and Hon. Michelle Bianchi, probate court judge and member of County Election Commission, voted in favor of keeping Jennings on the ballot in November. Kast said she had to do what her legal counsel advised her.
In November, if Jennings were to receive the greatest number of votes, the council could uphold its decision that he was ineligible to run in the first place, Kast said.
“It would create a vacancy and then at the next open election, the spot could be filled,” she said.
Jennings said when the duration of his residency came into question in mid-July, he sought informal advice from colleagues who are attorneys. They confirmed that, at the municipal level, durational residency requirements beyond one year are unreasonable and usually not enforced by the courts when challenged, he said.
Mayor Adam Stockford said the issue has negatively impacted the community.
“I hope it doesn’t destroy people’s faith in the electoral process,” he said. “Dr. Jennings is ineligible. I don’t have the authority to override what the charter states.”
As far as if the council would reverse its decision regarding Jennings’ ineligibility, Stockford said he is not likely to change his vote.
“I’ve never changed a course of vote,” he said.
An issue like this has not come up in Hillsdale before, French said.
“To prevent something like this from happening again, and without a vote of the people to change the charter, we just need to make sure that elected officials and city employees know the charter and stick to it — that would have prevented this problem from arising,” Bell said.
The mayor said that it’s hard to tell what will happen in November.
“The best thing to happen would be for one of the candidates to challenge it in court,” Stockford said.
Wainscott, who is running for city council for the third time, is in favor of following the charter because that is what the people have voted, he said.
“We need to follow what the charter says,” Wainscott said. “It’s all in the hands of the voters.”
“There’s going to be a winner and a loser, and I’m going to be one of them,” he said.
Wainscott suggested that this issue should be given to a committee made up of city residents to investigate and reach a conclusion.
Jansen, the Ward 1 candidate who got the least amount of votes in the primary election, said the city has made a mistake. He is also running for the third time.
“It’s up to the city and attorney to do due diligence to correct the situation, which means they’d have to sue the county,” he said.
If Jennings were to win the election in November, the council would need to reverse its decision regarding his eligibility before he could take the seat.
“I would like the opportunity to fulfill the commitment I made to my Ward 1 neighbors to serve,” Jennings said. “But I respect the council’s decision and if they stand by their decision and refuse to seat me, then I won’t contest the issue.”
He added that Hillsdale is “a small town, but this is our piece of America, and there are a lot of good people doing their best to make our town great. I want to support and be part of those efforts.”
Jennings said that he hopes the city can move past this issue.
“We’re all in the same boat,” he said. “We have more pressing issues to focus on.”