Forced to keep quiet before the court of public opinion during last week’s Aberdeen candidate forum, Steve Johnson will get a chance to speak out today (Monday) in a much more official court when he makes his plea to be certified as a candidate for city council in the Nov. 6 election.
Johnson, chairman of Aberdeen’s Economic Development Commission, owner of Johnson Family Pharmacy in downtown Aberdeen and, until recently, thought to be a resident of Perryman, was invalidated by the city’s Elections Board last week, but will take the issue today (Monday) before the Harford County Circuit Court.
Under the city charter, candidates for elected office in Aberdeen must have resided within the municipal boundaries of the city for a minimum of two years. It is well known Johnson has been living outside the city (he acknowledged as much before us and a group of exasperated city residents a year or so ago). It is just as well known that this particular piece of election law is easily worked around.
Just take it from the man who worked with Johnson in redeveloping downtown Aberdeen, talked the EDC chairman into running for city council and routinely performs his own feat of musical residences to vote where he chooses.
“I think he’ll win. The issue is not the length of time, but residency,” said Art Helton, a former Harford County Councilman, state senator and Darlington resident who votes in Aberdeen city elections every two years.
Art has an office and an apartment in Aberdeen, which he has used as a vehicle to vote in city elections. Johnson is apparently up to the same game.
Helton said Johnson also has an address in downtown Aberdeen.
“He lives there and he’ll prove that to the courts.”
Checking out the address (which we won’t publish), it seems the property indeed is owned by Steven C. and Julie S. Johnson. They bought the 1959, one-story brick structure for $160,000 in 2003 and it appears it may be rented out or at least split up into offices because it has two sequential addresses listed for the single structure.
The problem is the property is not the Johnsons’ principle residence. In fact, the mailing address attached to the property for tax purposes, is that of Johnson’s Perryman home.
This is where election law becomes hazy. There is no way I’ve ever seen to accurately or appropriately gauge where someone says they are living. If Johnson owns homes in both Perryman and Aberdeen how can it ever be proven which he lives in with his family and which he rents out to someone else?
As one of us owns both a home and a townhouse and rents one of them out, we know just how tricky proof of occupancy can be. But we like it better the way Art put it.
“I have a farm in Darlington and, say, 15 or 20 places in Aberdeen that I could live in,” Helton said.
For those who think the city rightfully turned down Johnson’s candidacy, consider this: Helton said Johnson was previously certified to vote in the city elections two years ago. There you go. If a guy VOTED in a city election two years ago (meaning he must have been a city resident), why can’t he RUN in a city election today?
“Let the voter judge that criteria,” Helton said.
Residency aside, Helton went on to cite a recent court ruling in Frederick, Maryland which found it unconstitutional to require a candidate to have lived in the municipality for any amount of time prior to his or her run for office.
“The two-year residency [requirement] is unconstitutional. Length is not a reliable, dependable qualifier of candidates,” he added.
It’s a sign of the times, a dangerous one at that, when someone can move into a city, rent office space and immediately run for office – although that’s basically what Sen. Hillary Clinton, Art Helton and now Steve Johnson have done.
But, there may be other, more sinister reasons behind Johnson’s invalidation, Helton alleges.
“He knows where the bodies are and that’s why they don’t want him to run,” he said.
Much like Helton and Mayor S. Fred Simmons’ prior relationship, Johnson and Simmons were also once close friends. That friendship has soured in the two years since Simmons was elected mayor, so much so that Helton doubts Johnson will keep his EDC position if Simmons is re-elected mayor.
“I can guarantee if Fred wins, he won’t be back in that position,” he added.
Standing outside after the FOP candidates forum last Wednesday night, Johnson said he’s tried to play it professional in his economic development-related interactions with the mayor and council, but described the mayor as “an egoist,” and alleged Simmons used strong-armed tactics to get his name rubbed from the ballot. Johnson also, in perhaps the most sober tones we’ve heard to date, recounted how former Mayor Doug Wilson was a “bump on a log” who never did much harm or good, and chastised Simmons for routing the city’s administrative leadership. The mayor and council should have reigned in the power that had been doled out to staffers over the years while retaining some institutional knowledge – instead of systematically cleaning house, Johnson said. Indeed, the forum itself may have actually been interesting had Steve been allowed to participate.
So what does Helton, who owns the building in which the would-be candidate runs his popular Johnson’s Family Pharmacy, think will happen?
Helton predicts a judge will rule to give Johnson an injunction to get him onto the Nov. 6 ballot – essentially giving him the benefit of the doubt until the matter can be sorted out by the courts following the election.
Another, albeit more unlikely, option is for Johnson’s attorney to ask the judge to put the election on hold until the residency issue is decided – although such a move might be aimed only at forcing a more timely decision from the court.
There’s something else to ponder. Why would Aberdeen hire an Annapolis attorney to represent the municipality in the Johnson candidacy injunction instead of using city attorney Elwood Stark?
UPDATE – Johnson’s court dates have been postponed thus far, but he has been told he will go before the Harford County Circuit Court and have his candidacy issue resolved Wednesday morning.