A judge ruled Thursday that Councilman LaMont Cole is eligible to run for reelection after a lawsuit challenging his candidacy claimed he no longer lives in the district he represents on the East Baton Rouge Metro Council — though the decision will likely face an appeal.
After an hour-long hearing in the 19th Judicial District Court, Judge Trudy White determined that Cole is, in fact, a resident of District 7, which covers much of Mid City and portions of north Baton Rouge stretching from Interstate 10 to Evangeline Street.
The petition challenging Cole’s residency was filed on Monday by Gwendolyn and Tom Stone, both constituents of District 7. Their lawsuit claims Cole resides at 438 Bellewood Drive, a house one block outside the district's boundaries purchased in 2017 for $375,000.
Cole testified Thursday that while he does own the house, only his wife and two children live there. He said he instead spends four to five nights a week sleeping at 665 N. 39th St. — a property he rents for $500 a month and which he listed as his residence when he qualified to run for reelection.
Andrew Murrell, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said Thursday it is highly likely the plaintiffs will appeal White’s ruling to the 1st Circuit. They have 24 hours to do so after the judgment is filed.
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Murrell is the spokesman for the movement to create the city of St. George, and Cole is a plaintiff alongside Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome in a lawsuit challenging the proposed city’s incorporation.
Cole was first appointed to the Metro Council in January 2016 and subsequently won reelection to a full term the following November. He said Thursday he was emotionally drained by the hearing, during which he testified for nearly an hour.
“I was completely shocked that the opposition would use members of the community to attack my character or discredit me in a way that suggests I was disingenuous or dishonest in how I was serving the community,” Cole said after the hearing.
During the hearing, Cole testified he's lived at the North 39th Street rental since February 2017, a decision he determined with his wife was best for their relationship. His counsel, attorney Seth Dornier, produced a water bill from the property in Cole's name.
The plaintiffs' petition says the rental is "an abandoned property without working electricity," and Murrell questioned why there wasn't documentation available of utility payments prior to July 2020.
Murrell at the hearing introduced an act of cash sale document from October 2017 that lists the Bellewood Drive property as Cole's primary mailing address.
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The East Baton Rouge Plan of Government requires council members to be both a qualified voter and resident of the district they represent. If that qualification is not met, the "office shall at once become vacant."
Cole offered his voter registration card and driver's license — which list the North 39th Street property as his address — as evidence he resides in District 7. The license was renewed two weeks ago after Cole said he lost his previous license while visiting Las Vegas.
Murrell said there were a number of documents the petition requested from Cole that weren't provided at Thursday's hearing that may shed light on his residency. Murrell said he would attempt to obtain those documents if the decision is made to appeal.
He said the lawsuit had nothing to do with the issue of St. George, noting that the plaintiffs "could care less about St. George" and instead were concerned their council member may not live in their district.
Cole said he plans to "run a clean race" and campaign on the issues most important to his district, including blight reduction, economic development and infrastructure improvements. He's expected to face five opponents on the ballot in November.