Circuit Judge John Thomason is set to hear a case on Dec. 6 that will determine whether Bearden’s legal residence is in Weaver, as he maintains, or in Anniston, as others claim.
If the judge determines he is a Weaver resident, the mayor would continue to serve the municipality as its chief executive. If the judge rules he is an Anniston resident, he could be removed from office.
The issue was first disputed in the 2008 mayoral election after Bearden’s opponent, current Councilwoman Shelia Field, brought the issue to light when she said several residents began asking about his residency. The matter again began drawing attention from residents late this summer after Bearden filed to run for the state House District 36 seat, listing an Anniston address.
It evolved into a legal dispute in September when the Weaver City Council, in a 4-1 vote, elected to hire an attorney to file a motion requesting a judge rule on Bearden’s residency. The suit also asks that a judge order Bearden out of office if it is determined that he lives in Anniston.
That’s because state law prohibits elected municipal leaders from living outside the cities they govern. Bearden maintains, citing state law, that although he has a home in Weaver and a home in Anniston, his legal residence is and always has been in Weaver.
“What we have here is an instance of somebody owns several homes and the suggestion by political opponents, which of course is the case here, that they changed their domicile, which is a defined term of the law, from Weaver to Anniston, which is a matter of intent under the law,” said Bearden’s attorney, William Eugene Rutledge.
Attempts to reach Councilwoman Field and Shaun Quinlan, the attorney hired to represent Weaver, were not successful Friday. In recent weeks, Bearden has repeatedly refused requests to comment to The Star.
Still, some Weaver residents disagree with the mayor, even after hearing his argument, and some have voiced their opinions at city meetings. The intent of the suit, according to council members, is to settle the dispute so the city can move forward.
Bearden, however, says he doubts their motives. At Tuesday’s council meeting, he dismissed the suit as being “friendly” and read aloud the multiple personal documents it asks him to produce to prove his residency.
If Bearden is removed from office, the city would have to select a new mayor. According to Tracy Roberts, an attorney with the Alabama League of Municipalities, Alabama law spells out how cities the size of Weaver are to fill mayoral vacancies under Title 11 of the Alabama code of law.
According to Title 11, the mayor’s position could be filled by appointment of the City Council, the governor or by a special election, depending on the circumstances.
Whichever way Thomason rules in the case to be taken up Dec. 6, both sides will have the opportunity to appeal. Rutledge said on Bearden’s behalf that they likely would appeal if the judge determines Bearden is an Anniston resident.
“I would assume that whichever side loses at the trial court level would take it up on appeal, I know I certainly would,” Rutledge said. “Although I don’t visualize losing.”
Star staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544.