A Hattiesburg municipal judge pro tem is disputing claims that her votes in the general and special mayoral elections in Hattiesburg were illegal.
Various social media and bloggers have insinuated that Carol Jones Russell's votes were not proper because they claim she resides in Stone County. Russell calls the Stone County home "a weekend retreat" for her and her husband.
Carol Jones Russell calls the social media attacks against her and her character malicious and that it "borders on the tortuous interference of my ability to live, work and be a viable citizen of this community." While she wouldn't speak on camera, she did give us a written statement and welcomed us into her Tuscan Avenue home, which she bought from her father in 2009. It is also the address listed by her name on the city's voter rolls. In a written statement, Russell says she has occupied this house since 2009 with the exception of one year when she rented it out. During that time, Russell says she stayed between a guest house on the property and her parent's home. She says she began a major renovation project in the spring and that she currently lives in the house despite continuing renovations.
But last week, the Forrest County Tax Assessors office deleted Russell's homestead exemption for the Tuscan Avenue home. Tax officials say they visited the property and found it vacant and that the owner lived in Stone County.
Russell admits her husband of nearly two years owns and resides in a house in Stone County. She says he works in the state of Alabama and travels several states. She says they live apart for work purposes and use the Stone county home "as a peaceful retreat after our work weeks." Mr. Russell filed for Stone County homestead exemption in his name only in January 2012, but according to Kathy Waterbury with the state tax commission, both names should be on the homestead exemption if a couple is married. Waterbury also says a married couple cannot have homestead exemptions at two separate locations.
Forrest County Tax Assessor Mary Ann Palmer says because of that law, the Tuscan Avenue homestead exemption filed by Ms. Russell was deleted from the tax rolls October 25. Waterbury also says homestead exemption is automatically null and void once the property becomes rental, since homestead exemption means Owner/Occupied.
According to city water records, the Tuscan Avenue water bill was paid by someone else between March 2012 and April 2013, and there was no water consumption at that location from April to September 26, which is when it was reconnected under Russell's name.
In her written statement, Russell says even being temporarily absent from her home, she always intended on returning to her Hattiesburg home. Therefore, she says her residency in Hattiesburg remains just as intact as it has her entire life.
The laws governing homestead exemption and voting leaves room for debate. We sought the state attorney general's opinion which says: "For purposes of voting and holding public office, once a legitimate residency is established, that residency continues until it is abandoned in favor of another with no intent to return." The statement goes on to say: "If one has filed for homestead exemption, it creates a strong but rebuttable presumption that the property is one's residence for election purposes."
It must also be noted that Russell's father, Hattiesburg fireman Gregory Hinton used the same Tuscan Avenue address to vote in the recent mayor's race, although Russell has told us her father does not live there. Hinton has claimed homestead exemption since 2006 on a house in south Forrest County.
No one in this story has been charged with crime.
You can read Russell's letter in its entirety at this link.