Matthew Cardinale, Atlanta. ICourtesy photo) Matthew Cardinale, Atlanta. (Courtesy photo)

Elections officials are scrambling after a judge ruled late Friday that Atlanta City Council candidate Matthew Cardinale was improperly removed from the ballot with early voting starting Monday at 8:30 a.m.

“I am ecstatic; I am elated,” said Cardinale, who has a law degree but has not sat for the Georgia bar exam. “They tried to keep me off the ballot, but all I ever wanted was to serve the people of District 3. Now I’ll have the opportunity to earn their votes.”

During a hearing Friday afternoon, a key issue before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Lee Ellerbe was whether Cardinale’s monthlong stay at an Airbnb before he moved into a newly-purchased home qualified him as a “resident” for purposes of state and city election law.

Cardinale qualified to run for the District 3 seat in January left vacant by the death of Councilmember Ivory Lee Young. But Atlanta Municipal Clerk Foris Webb, who also serves as the city’s elections superintendent, filed a challenge to Cardinale’s candidacy last month arguing that he only became a “resident” of the district on on Feb. 14, when he moved into the house he now occupies, after spending 31 days at an Airbnb unit that is also in the district.

Webb himself presided over a hearing on his challenge and on Monday sent Cardinale a letter saying he had determined Cardinale did not meet the requirement that a candidate live in the district one year prior to qualifying.

Webb said his decision was based on a “number of factors” including that, at the time Cardinale was living at the Airbnb rental, Cardinale also had a lease at another property outside the district, Webb said. Cardinale also was negotiating with a rent-to-own company for his house in Hunter Hills, within the district, which Cardinale moved into last February from the Airbnb rental.

But Webb also said that, in his judgment, an Airbnb rental could not qualify as a residence.

“My decision is also based on (what I consider) the inherently temporary nature of obtaining housing through a service such as Airbnb,” Webb’s letter said. “Unlike hotels, Airbnb bookings are not generally considered to be of a continuous nature based on the the guests’ desire to remain and ability to pay. It is my opinion that a rental through Airbnb is short-term and not indefinite or continuous.”

Cardinale argued that an Atlanta ordinance defines a “permanent resident” as someone who books a suite at hotel or motel for more than 30 days and that an Airbnb is no different under the law.

Webb was represented at Friday’s hearing by Atlanta Law Department attorney Reginald McClendon, who conceded that there was “some novelty” in the issue and suggested the status of an Airbnb for residency purposes was ‘probably a case of some first impression issues.’”

Even so, he said, Webb was within his authority to challenge Cardinale’s candidacy and, as the legal finder of fact, to adjudge him not qualified.

Cardinale said that Webb’s decision was arbitrary and unsupported by any law.

“Mr. Webb has created his own law and that constitutes an abuse of discretion,” he said.

His disqualification has confused voters and cost him campaign contributions and volunteers, Cardinale said.

The final witness was Fulton County elections director Richard Barron, whose office will conduct the election.

Barron said that, unless he knew by 5 p.m. Friday whether Cardinale would be ruled eligible, he would not have time to contact his state counterparts to reformat and reissue the ballots in time for Monday’s early voting.

If the order came after that deadline, Barron said, it would take five or six hours to change the computers Monday to include Cardinale’s name with the eight other candidates seeking the seat: Shalis Young, Greg Clay, Jabari Simama, Erika Estrada, Byron Amos, Ricky Brown, Antonio Brown and Mesha Mainor.

Ellerbe’s order, which was released with just minutes to spare, said Webb’s decision that Cardinale was not qualified was based on two conclusions of law not supported by the evidence.

“The first conclusion is that Plaintiff ‘did not gain residence in [the District] on or prior to January 23, 2018,” because he only intended to stay in the Airbnb temporarily.

“However, the Court finds the only pertinent question, as the Final Order previously identified, is whether or not Plaintiff established residency in the District as of January 23, 2019.”

Under state law, Cardinale had established such residency, she said.

“The second conclusion is that Plaintiff ‘did not gain residence in [the District] on or prior to January 23, 2018, as [Plaintiff] occupied the 16th Street [address] for temporary lodging purposes only without the intention of making that residence, or [the District], his permanent place of abode.’ The Court finds this conclusion unsupported by the evidence,” Ellerbe wrote.

Webb was not immediately available for comment.