CENTREVILLE — Josh Shonts has been confirmed to move forward to his elected seat on the Centreville Town Council, with the condition that the state board of elections is able to correct the anomaly with his voter registration.
Council President Jim Beauchamp made the motion to accept Shonts to the council with that condition and was seconded by Vice President Jeff Morgan. The vote was 2-1, with Councilman Tim McCluskey dissenting.
The motion came during the regular council meeting, Thursday, Oct. 17, which included on the agenda a quasi-judicial hearing on the matter of Shonts’ eligibility to serve on the council. The hearing stemmed from election day reports from the town that Shonts was not eligible due to his voter registration having changed from Queen Anne’s County to Kent County in September.
In the Oct. 7 election, Shonts received 374 votes and George “Smokey” Sigler garnered 288. The handful of remaining ballots did not support either candidate. But with the candidate receiving the most votes not being listed as a registered voter in Queen Anne’s County, the outcome of the election was called into question.
Town attorney Sharon Van Emburgh made the announcement on the evening of Oct. 7.
“A winner cannot be named at this time,” she said then, “as they are listed as a registered voter in another county.”
According to the town charter, “The Town Council is the judge of the qualifications of its members and will need to decide whether the candidate with the most votes is qualified to take the office of Town Council member,” with that necessitating the hearing Thursday evening.
Shonts initially was unaware his voter registration had been changed and was surprised to learn on the day of the election that his registration was not in Queen Anne’s. Shonts said he learned, after the fact, that when he forwarded mail from his Centreville residence to Chestertown for personal reasons, the post office initiated a change of voter registration with the state.
The information that Shonts was not registered to vote in Queen Anne’s was received by the town on the evening of Oct. 3, just one business day before the election, and the town charter dictates that a council member shall be at least 25 years of age, have lived in the town for at least two years immediately preceding their election and be a registered voter of the town for at least six months preceding the election.
It was a difficult agreement to come to among the council to determine how the hearing should be held, Beauchamp said, making it clear that the duty of the board of elections is to count and recount votes, and certify those results to the council.
“This council is the ultimate arbitrator of who is on the council, who is qualified to be on the council and who should remain on the council,” he said.
The council heard testimony from Van Emburgh on the events leading to the hearing. It also heard from Shonts, verifying his domicile, his age and the circumstances surrounding the forwarding of his mail, which he said he was not aware would lead to a change in his voter registration.
Jeff Thompson, with the Queen Anne’s County Board of Elections, confirmed the board learned of the change in registration on Oct. 3 and that on Oct. 8 the change had been rectified. Thompson said he spoke with the Kent County Board of Elections, which made the change with information received from the Electronic Registration Information Center, through which Shonts’ information was reported when he forwarded his mail.
Chip MacCleod, the attorney representing the Kent County Board of Elections, confirmed the board was notified via the national change of address system/ERIC and on Sept. 19 mailed a voter registration notice to Shonts. It is clear Shonts has the right to appeal his registration change to the state, MacCleod said.
When Shonts filed to run for office, his voter registration still showed him registered in Queen Anne’s County, Thompson said.
During the hearing, Van Emburgh directed to Shonts a line of what seemed to be personal questions, inquiring persistently about his living arrangements, to which Shonts replied with loan statements, tax returns and a town water bill, all bearing his Centreville address.
McCluskey also questioned Shonts, trying to ascertain if Shonts’ place of residence was Centreville and had been so for the past two years.
John Downing, with whom Shonts had extended a lease agreement, testified Shonts’ place of residence was the address he listed when he filed for office. Centreville business owner Niki Pino implored the council to review its own policies.
Resident Dan Worth gave similar testimony, referencing section 401 and 406 of the town charter — in which the list of registered voters is confirmed 30 days prior to the election and then closed.
Another voter, Lou Armstrong, told the council that this is a simple situation elevated to something more than it should be.
“We need to give this a break,” he said.
Testing the practices at the post office, Armstrong said, he went to the post office to ask for a change of address card. He said he inquired if doing so would change his voter registration and was told no.
He then tried to change his voter registration at the Queen Anne’s County Board of Elections office, where he was instructed that to do so he should take his current voter registration card and complete information on the back, sign it and take it to the board of elections in which he was seeking to register.
After hearing testimony from all, Beauchamp addressed the packed meeting room with his own testimony. Beauchamp said as council president, he lives in a house in Centreville for which he does not have ownership or a formal lease, and all his mail goes to Annapolis.
McCluskey’s testimony included questions of Shonts again, asking why he chose not to use a post office box or have his mail forwarded to his business in Centreville.
“Where do you sleep?” McCluskey asked.
Some audience members did not respond favorably to McCluskey’s questions, with one member calling out, “He will never get elected again.”
Reining the meeting back under control, Beauchamp said he was willing to concede Shonts’ voter registration was a clerical issue and an unintended consequence of changing his mailing address.
Beauchamp said he was convinced Shonts’ intent is to have domicile in Centreville.