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Statehouse Beat: What's in an address? A lot, if you're running for the Legislature

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The curious case of just where Robert Karnes resides has gotten curiouser.

Those familiar with this column know that from time to time, the topic of residency questions regarding the former Upshur County senator have come up.

In Karnes’ 2018 reelection campaign, his residency became an issue after it was revealed on these pages that Karnes — who owns an IT maintenance company, FSIS, headquartered in Longwood, Florida, and owns a house in nearby Umatilla, Florida — had voted in Florida in the 2010 elections.

He was still registered to vote in Florida until May 26, 2017 — two days before a column noting a Robert L. Karnes with the same date of birth as the senator was still registered to vote there.

(Karnes had been registered to vote in Upshur County from 1999 to 2004, then re-registered to vote there in 2012.)

All that raised questions, since one of the requirements to run for state Senate is being a resident of West Virginia for five consecutive years.

Karnes either failed to meet residency requirements when he was elected to the Senate in 2014, or voted illegally in the 2010 Florida election. That question has not been resolved.

(After the issue was raised in 2017, attorneys for the state AFL-CIO researched the matter for a possible suit challenging Karnes’ eligibility, but ultimately concluded there were too many obstacles to overturn certified election results. The next year, Karnes got his clock cleaned by Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, in the 2018 primary election.)

Which brings us to the present.

Karnes has filed to run for the state Senate — but now lists his residence as Helvetia, Randolph County, not Tallsmanville, Upshur County, his place of residence when he ran in 2014 and 2018.

(Since in multi-county senatorial districts, no one county may have more than one senator, Hamilton’s seat bars anyone from Upshur County from running in the 11th Senatorial District this year. Legally, that’s known as the “residency dispersal” requirement.)

Tax records show that Karnes owns a 2.7-acre piece of property in the Middle Fork District of Randolph County (which includes Helvetia). That land has an assessed value of $4,870 and is listed as having no buildings on-site.

Tax records show Karnes still owns a 101-acre property in Tallmansville with a house assessed at $169,020 (appraised value of $281,700), and has five vehicles registered and taxed in Upshur County.

Records show he also owns Dark Horse LLC, dba as Rock Cave Storage, located near Tallmansville.

Meanwhile, the Randolph County Clerk’s office confirmed that on Sept. 24, 2019, Karnes registered to vote in Randolph County and his polling place is in Pickens.

(In addition to the five-year state residency requirement, there is a one-year county residency requirement to run for state Senate.)

•••

Karnes is legendary for his snarky Twitter exchanges, so I thought readers might enjoy my email exchanges with him regarding his residency issue.

Initially, I wrote: “According to your campaign filing, I see you are now a resident of Randolph County.” (I then proceeded to detail the information listed above.) “Can you call or email so I can sort this out?”

Karnes’ rather speedy response: “Never known you to care about facts, Phil. My address is listed on my filing.”

I responded: “Filing address and place of residence can be two different things. Back in the day, Joe Manchin tried to claim that a backroom at his place of business was his residence.”

(That was a faulty recollection on my part. In fact, it was Chuck Polan who had tried to do that, leading to the 1984 state Supreme Court decision that knocked both him and Manchin off the ballot for residency issues. More on that momentarily.)

I continued: “Is the listed address a rental property? Living off the grid? Why are your vehicles registered/taxed in a different county from your place of residence?”

Karnes answered: “I realize your guys take a course in dishonesty. I live where I filed.”

(I always find it amusing that politicians, when confronted with publicly available and easily verifiable data, contend that reporters are somehow being biased or dishonest by presenting that information.)

My follow-up: “When did you move, and why? Can you forward a photo of your new residence? (I believe an interested reader is already pursuing same.)”

(Which is true, a reader from that area indicated plans for a road trip to try to find and photograph 22253 Adolph Road, Helvetia.)

Karnes’ last response: “I’m sure they are.”

•••

Residency issues for legislators seeking reelection and candidates for legislative office are as common as bridge-naming resolutions during legislative sessions.

As noted above, a young Delegate Joe Manchin was knocked off the state Senate ballot in 1984 when he tried to run in the senatorial district that included the town of Farmington, where he had his business, had relatives and claimed to spend most of his waking hours, after the Supreme Court established his primary residence was in a suburb of Fairmont, in another senatorial district.

Chuck Polan, in hopes of running in a more favorable district for his state Senate bid that year, claimed that a “sleeping quarters” room in his real estate company office building in Huntington was his primary residence.

A Randolph-Upshur residency debate isn’t even unique to Karnes.

In 2014, primary challenger Margaret Kerr Beckwith tried unsuccessfully to have Sen. Clark Barnes, D-Randolph, removed from the ballot, contending that Barnes spent most of his time at his residence in Buckhannon, Upshur County, rather than at the house in Montrose he used as his official address.

In 2006, then-House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, opted not to run for reelection over residency issues, after taking a job with a Charleston law firm, and renting a house in Kanawha City.

In 2012, the late Frank Deem attempted to run against Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, after losing his Senate seat to Sen. David Nohe, R-Wood, in 2010. Deem argued that the “residency dispersal” requirement was unconstitutional, and in his case, unfair to residents of Wood County, who despite accounting for the vast majority of population of the 3rd Senatorial District, are limited to a single senator. The Supreme Court ordered Deem removed from the ballot, although he subsequently won election to the House, where he first served in 1955.

More recently, in 2016, backers of 14th District incumbent Sen. Bob Williams, D-Taylor, took photos of then-Delegate Randy Smith’s new apartment in Thomas, Tucker County, in an attempt to show that it didn’t appear the apartment was occupied, following Smith’s supposed relocation there from Preston County to challenge Williams. Smith won the election handily.

•••

In the past, secretaries of state and state elections commissions have tended to tread lightly on residency issues.

After all, for much of his illustrious political career, the only residence Sen. Robert C. Byrd had in West Virginia was a post office box in Sophia.

The 2020 West Virginia Running for Office Guide put out by the Secretary of State’s Office clearly spells out what constitutes residency. It states:

“‘Residence’ has been defined by the West Virginia Supreme Court as the place where you actually live. A business location cannot be established as a residence. Property which you rent to someone else is not a residence. A post office box does not establish residence. Some offices require you to be a resident for a length of time before election, by the time of filing for office, or by the time of taking office.”

Secretary of State Mac Warner has some excellent people working in his Elections Division, and I feel certain they will be able to resolve questions regarding Karnes’ residency in short order.

•••

Finally, the quote of the week: “Not having, frankly, the solar box checked is a problem, and we’ve heard that from a lot from different companies.” — Mike Graney, state Development Office executive director.

Graney was asked, during Department of Commerce budget hearings before the Senate Finance Committee, to name the top priorities for corporations considering locating facilities in the state.

He said qualified workforce and workforce training are the top concerns, followed by economic incentives and tax credits.

Graney then said that, “as Wall Street continues to vote on the social performance of companies,” West Virginia’s lack of renewable energy resources hurts its ability to recruit new businesses.

So, let’s review: Qualified workforce, economic incentives, renewable energy. Are we missing something?

Oh, right. Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch had to jump in to throw in a mention of the personal property tax on manufacturing equipment and inventory, to get the presentation back on the administration’s script.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

Funerals for Thursday, July 2, 2020

Adkins, Anne - 6 p.m., Roush Funeral Home, Ravenswood.

Morton, Freda - 11 a.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Nunn, Terry - 7 p.m., Good Shepherd Mortuary, South Charleston.

Olive, Rex - 2 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Reynolds, George - 2 p.m., Dodd & Reed Funeral Home, Webster Springs.

Rhodes, Ella - 4 p.m., Waybright Funeral Home, Ripley.

Rose, Carol - 10 a.m., Cunningham Memorial Park, St. Albans.

Waldron, Helen - 1 p.m., Forks of Coal Cemetery, Alum Creek.

Wibberg, David - 11 a.m., St. Anthony Catholic Church, Charleston.