ATLANTA -- A bill sponsored by Leesburg Republican Rep. Ed Rynders in the state House may finally bring Cheryl Calhoun closure.
The piece of legislation, House Bill 939, offers counties a means to "correct an honest mistake" such as the one that disqualified Calhoun from running for the Albany City Commission and initially prohibited Dougherty County officials from returning Calhoun's qualifying fee, even though her disqualification came about because of an error made by the Dougherty Elections office.
"This is so wonderful ... I'm speechless," Calhoun said when informed of Rynders' legislative efforts. "To be a part of this makes it worth all the pain I went through."
Calhoun had sought to qualify to run in the city's Ward I race, but Elections officials erroneously told her her residence was located in Ward II and said she'd have to run in that district. A week before the election, well after early voting had begun, the Dougherty Elections Board was notified of the error and it disqualified Calhoun.
When the stricken candidate asked if her qualifying fee would be returned, county officials initially told her state law did not allow for the return of such fees. Calhoun was eventually reimbursed her $450 fee by City Manager James Taylor.
"There has to be a compelling reason, but the state should have an oversight option when a mistake is made through no fault of the candidate," Rynders said. "A lot of times, unfortunately, people would qualify for office using the 'if I qualify, then so-and-so won't run' logic, and then they'd ask for their money back. State law stopped the return of fees in situations like that.
"But there are times, such as what happened in Cheryl Calhoun's case in Albany last year, that a mistake is made and the candidate is in no way at fault. The language of this bill provides a mechanism through which counties in the state can return the fees in such cases."
State law currently states that "Qualifying fees shall not be returned to candidates for any reason, including withdrawal, death or disqualification ..."
House Bill 939, written by Rynders and co-sponsored by Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, who chairs the House Governmental Affairs Committee, and Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville, adds to the bill: "... providing, however, that if such disqualification is the result of error or negligence of the officer with whom such candidate qualified and not the result of any act of the candidate and such error or negligence is verified in writing by the secretary of state, such fee may be refunded to the candidate."
Rynders said he's optimistic about passage of the bill.
"I can't imagine that there would be people lining up to oppose this bill," he said. "It doesn't really make a drastic change in state law, just tweaks the language. Really, it's common sense.
"While discussing the Cheryl Calhoun situation, the secretary of state's office asked me what they could do if something like that happened again. I thought it should be addressed."
Calhoun, meanwhile, said she has written Rynders a letter thanking him for sponsoring the legislation.
"I don't want anyone else to have to go through what I did," she said. "It was humiliating and embarrassing. I took it too personal, but at the time I didn't think anyone around here cared about me. I took it as a personal attack.
"I'm just so thankful that Mr. Rynders is trying to address this situation."