Alachua County chairwoman responds to questionable residency claims
Public records suggest that the chair of the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners may not live in her own district as required by state law, despite residency claims made over the years.
But a voter registration, driver’s license and ownership of another property co-owned with her son may provide legal cover.
Merihelen Wheeler, 70, a well-respected former school teacher with more than three decades of experience, has been praised for her continued work on environmental issues throughout the county and state well before her time in office. She has represented the county’s District 2 seat since being first elected in 2018 and is currently running for re-election unopposed.
Property records show that Wheeler, along with her husband, has claimed a homestead exemption — a property tax break that requires primary residency — for a northwest Gainesville home outside of her district since prior to being elected. The home falls within District 4, held by longtime County Commissioner Ken Cornell.
Reached by phone on Saturday, Wheeler said her situation is confusing but legal.
“At the time of your election, you need to live in the district you represent,” Wheeler said.
When filing to run for office Wheeler in 2018, records initially showed her primary residency was in Cornell’s district, as was her voter registration information. A January 2019 voter database shows Wheeler updated the information to a High Springs home, then-owned by a James and Sara Wood, meeting residency requirements.
In 2020, however, almost nearly 18 months after her election, Wheeler then purchased a home with her son inside District 2 where she now claims to live part-time with her son and a third person. Property records show the homestead exemption is solely in the son’s name, which Wheeler says was done for survivorship reasons.
Moreover, a Gainesville Regional Utilities account is under the commissioner’s name at the property. It’s also where she is registered to vote, though the supervisor of the elections office lists her homesteaded property as her mailing address.
Wheeler says she has a room at the property with her son and splits her time between the two houses, which are about 15 minutes apart along Northwest 16th Boulevard. She also owns a business, the Gestalt Center, in between the homes.
Neighbors near her son’s home know her as “Gran Meri,” she added.
“I live at both places,” said Wheeler, speaking by phone from the homesteaded property Saturday. “I have a bedroom at my old house here and I have a bedroom with the baby at (my son’s house).
Wheeler owns other properties, too — in Kentucky, in Melrose and one with her brother in High Springs — but later acknowledged the property with her husband is considered the “main” property.
In Florida, it doesn’t take much to claim residency at a property. Receiving mail at a home is often enough legal cover to establish residency, which can sometimes be a nightmare scenario for homeowners attempting to evict squatters.
Wheeler was named chair of the woman-majority Board of County Commissioners in 2021, giving her the ability to sign emergency orders, run meetings, and is often the face of the board at public events. Chairs have no additional voting power and are restricted from making motions.
She said she doesn’t know why she is listed on the homestead exemption with her husband, other than as a precaution if one of them passes away.
“I guess we could get that changed if we needed to so that it’s just homesteaded in his name because he is the main owner of this place,” she said.
Though the intent of the law is for elected officials to live within the districts they represent, broad interpretation and lax enforcement on the issue have allowed commissioners to move around the county freely, as long as they maintain voter registration at a property in their district.
Former County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson, for example, had a primary residence outside the District 3 he represented while in office but owned another property and received mail at an address that qualified him. Former County Commissioner Susan Baird also had a rental lease agreement inside District 4 while in office despite owning a primary residence elsewhere.
Wheeler’s situation also draws comparisons to questions that plagued the campaign of former Gainesville City Commission candidate Annie Orlando in 2014. Back then, Orlando had changed her voting registration and homestead from an unincorporated Alachua County property to inside city limits under the required six-month window leading up to the election. She claimed she met the legal requirements and used both homes in-and-outside city limits.
“It’s the sort of thing we have done,” said Wheeler, who acknowledged the increased scrutiny on elected officials’ residences since the 2021 removal of Alachua County School Board member Diyonne McGraw.
McGraw was removed from her seat by Gov. Ron DeSantis after it was discovered she lived just feet outside the district she served. DeSantis appointed local Republican activist Russell Mildred to replace her.
McGraw unsuccessfully sued the governor, claiming her removal was an overreach of power. She has since filed to re-run after the redistricting of lines had covered her home.