Rolla City Councilmember’s Voting History Highlights Confusion Over Missouri Residency Laws
Updated on Monday, Aug. 23 with the prosecuting attorney declining to take action.
Since this story was published, Phelps County Prosecuting Attorney Brendon Fox received requests to investigate Moriah Renaud's eligibility to hold office.
Citing the Missouri Supreme Court ruling State ex rel. King v. Walsh regarding Kit Bond's residency eligibility to run for governor, Fox wrote, "it is my belief that a court would find Ms. Renaud to be a resident of Ward 1 and not unlawfully holding the office. Therefore, I will not take any action regarding Ms. Renaud."
A recently elected member of the Rolla City Council may not be eligible to serve in the office she holds. The situation underlines the difficulty in Missouri concerning how to prove where an elected official lives, and who is in charge of enforcing residency requirements.
According to Rolla ordinances, to serve on the city council, a candidate must be a resident of the city for one year prior to the election and six months before Election Day in the ward in which they are running.
Moriah Renaud purchased a home along the southern edge of the city’s 1st Ward in 2019 but was registered to vote in the neighboring 4th Ward until sometime after the Nov. 3, 2020, election. She then ran for election in the 1st Ward, and won in the April 6, 2021, municipal election.
“There is over six months even from the time of the election in November until the election in April,” Renaud said when asked about the discrepancy. But actually there are five months, three days in between the two elections.
Renaud confirms that she voted in the November election in the 4th Ward, and documents from the Phelps County voter rolls show she was registered to vote at the home of Robert Kessinger, a current council member who was elected to the 4th Ward seat in the same election when Renaud won. Their homes are just over a mile apart.
“I hadn’t realized my voter registration hadn’t been updated until after I voted (in November) and I realized I had to do this, and I did it after that,” Renaud said.
Renaud said she lived with the Kessinger family until she purchased her house in 2019. But she says she moved back into their home for a period of time while she was recovering from a medical issue, as she needed help and support.
It was during that convalescence that Renaud voted as a 4th Ward resident. But she said she always considered herself a 1st Ward resident.
“I lived in my house, all my stuff was there, and I was in and out of the Kessingers’ house while I was sick. I felt completely and totally comfortable saying I lived there (in the 1st Ward) because it was half-and-half,” Renaud said.
Renaud said that on Nov. 3, 2020, she was a resident of the 4th Ward for voting purposes but a resident of the 1st Ward for residency purposes. Who decides whether that is a violation of a city ordinance, voting laws or both is unclear.
“Residency is kind of a complicated issue, it’s not as cut-and-dry as it may seem,” said Richard Sheets, executive director of the Missouri Municipal League, who has advised cities and counties on these issues when they have come up over the years.
“It happens from time to time that someone owns a house in one place but also owns a business in another, and they say they sleep in the basement of the business,” Sheets said. “And it’s not for the city to decide if that’s true.”
“We advise our clients that when a candidate declares a residency, that’s their residency,” Sheets said. “It’s going to be up to a candidate who runs against them to question those. It’s not up to the city clerk to question if those requirements are met.”
Missouri Supreme Court rulings in 2004 and 2010 specifically state the body of government that a candidate is running to be a part of can’t be the arbiter of that candidate’s residency.
Residency is not just a city election issue. Josh Hawley has faced questions about his residency both as Missouri attorney general and a U.S. senator.
State Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, and state Rep. Nick Schroer, R-St. Charles County, faced accusations of not living where they held office. Courts ruled in favor of Schroer’s residency claims. The other matters did not make it as far as a court hearing.
The Fort Zumwalt school district is wrestling with a residency case involving a board member who moved to Florida but still flies back to the region for meetings.
State election law gives losing candidates up to 30 days to protest the outcome of an election, but it does not specifically say the residency of the winning candidate can be one of the reasons for a challenge. It outlines a challenge process relating to vote counts, voter registration and election procedures.
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, whose office is ultimately responsible for elections in Missouri, said the local election authority, either the county clerk or in some cases the city’s election commissioner, can’t make the residency decision, either.
“I don’t think it’s something where people say they shouldn’t check the qualifications,” Ashcroft said, “but it’s trying to find the right person or entity that won’t be seen as biased or inherently biased.”
Ashcroft said the legislature should change state law to identify some position or office that would check that candidates meet basic requirements, but he doesn’t want the secretary of state or local election authorities to be put in that situation.
“We don’t want anyone to think the administration of elections is partisan if we are put in the middle of deciding who is allowed to run for an office,” Ashcroft said.
Rolla Mayor Lou Magdits said he is frustrated that there isn’t a better process to ensure someone running for office is eligible to hold it.
“I think it’s baloney that we just put a statement in front of somebody and say, ‘Hey, you read this, and we’re going to take your word for it, go ahead and sign it,’ because essentially that’s what the system is doing right now,” Magdits said.
He agrees with Ashcroft that the state legislature should change the law and create a better system.
Going to court
Under the current system, any challenge to legitimacy to hold office will have to be decided in court.
And that may require a losing candidate or a resident of the ward or district in question to file a civil lawsuit, a process that takes time and money, discouraging people serving in local government from taking it on.
But there is another option, which would be to appeal to the county prosecutor to investigate.
Rolla has some history with this. A citizen complained to Phelps County Prosecuting Attorney Brendon Fox in 2019 that then-Councilman Daniel Jones was not eligible to hold his office because of a previous felony conviction.
Fox filed a petition challenging Jones’ eligibility, and Jones ended up resigning his position before the matter was heard in court.
So far, no one, including former 1st Ward Councilwoman Rachel Schneider, who lost to Renaud, has filed a complaint with the county prosecuting attorney.
“Nothing happens until someone complains,” Fox said. “If someone asked me to look into it, I would be obligated to do so.”
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl