A City Council candidate who served with AmeriCorps and temporarily lived in Austin faces questions about whether he’s eligible to run for office.
At 22 years old, Emery Betts isn’t your stereotypical council candidate. He’s studying biology at the University of Texas at Arlington and was deployed throughout the country to help with relief efforts for AmeriCorps in 2016.
Betts, who is in a three-way race against incumbent Larry Broseh and challenger Esthela Hernandez for Place 7, said he plans to stay in the election.
When he filed to run, he listed his parents house near J.L. Boren Elementary School as his home.
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“My permanent residence has been Mansfield for the last 13 years,” Betts said. “I was in Mansfield more than I was in any other part of the country.”
But Mansfield resident Karen Self did some digging on social media and found a couch-surfing website that shows Betts lived in Austin in 2016.
“I’m an inquisitive person so I started looking at stuff,” Self said. “The guy is ineligible.”
Self lives in the same gated community as Broseh near Mansfield High School.
At the March 27 council meeting, she questioned why the city didn’t do more investigating on candidate eligibility.
“You have to prove your residency when you put your kids in school,” Self said. “It should be more important for the City Council candidates to prove residency.”
Betts said he did maintain a temporary residency in Austin while serving with AmeriCorps, but he still spent the majority of his time at his parents’ house.
He was deployed to help with disaster relief efforts in Oklahoma, Louisiana, East Texas, Central Texas and South Texas. He was deployed 131 days from January to November when his service ended.
“I’m extremely proud of it,” Betts said. “It’s actually on the flyers that I hand out to people.”
Mansfield requires council candidates to live in Mansfield for 12 months prior to the election date. Now that he’s finished with AmeriCorps, he’s living at his parents’ address, attending classes at UTA and working for the Texas Campaign for the Environment.
By the time May arrives, he estimates he’ll have spent 70 percent of his time at his parents’ house in the previous 12 months.
“Residency isn’t determined by gossip and campaigns aren’t won by mudslinging,” Betts said.
Hernandez said she hasn’t researched Bett’s eligibility, but applauds him for having the courage to run for office.
“He’s an inspiration to young people,” Hernandez said. “I let him know that I told my grandkids about him. Not a lot of people are willing to run for public office at such a young age.”
Self said she’s concerned that if Betts wins, he could be found ineligible and would have to resign, forcing Mansfield to have a special election to fill the seat. And the city would have to shoulder the cost for the election.
That challenge would have to come from the other candidates in the race, either Broseh or Hernandez, said Sam Taylor, communications director for the Texas Secretary of State’s office.
They are the only ones that have standing to file a lawsuit because they are the ones who can show harm, Taylor said. The lawsuit would have to be decided in a district court.
The Texas election code requires that candidates live in the state for 12 months and must live in the city or district they are seeking office in for six months prior to the filing date.
The state election code does allow cities to have more strict residency requirements, as Mansfield does.
There’s not “clear cut case law” for what constitutes residency, Taylor said.
City Secretary Jeanne Heard said candidates fill out an affidavit swearing that they meet the qualifications to run for council.
The city secretary can declare a candidate ineligible before early voting starts. The mayor could make the call after election day before the council certifies the election results.
City staff have been advised that a certified public record proving residency outside the city is required before a candidate can be declared ineligible. Facebook and other online postings do not meet the legal definition of public record, Heard said.
Not even certified public records can conclusively prove residency, according to the Texas Secretary of State. Only a court of law can decide that.
Heard also said that the Texas Attorney General and the courts have been “very liberal in determining residency and have done so based on the intent of the person to reside in a certain location.”