NAACP officials are accusing the Fayette County Board of Education of wasting tax dollars in fighting a lawsuit that would divide the county into voting districts.
According to Phyllis Blake, Communications Chair for the Fayette County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in a recent press statement, the county has already spent in excess of $227,000 to defend themselves allegations that they county commission and board of education are in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.
Last year the NAACP filed suit against Fayette County, alleging that the county’s method of electing members to the County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
Ryan Haygood, director of LDF’s Political Participation Group, called Fayette’s at-large election method “a structural wall of exclusion that guarantees that black voters, in spite of having tried in election after election, cannot elect their candidates of choice. ”
Under Fayette’s current system, there are five county commission districts. A candidate must live in the district he or she is seeking. Everyone in the county votes in all districts, however. So, while a candidate may get the majority of votes in his or her district, he or she could lose the election because the votes from the other four districts outweigh those from the home district.
The NAACP contention is that in replacing at-large voting with district voting, black residents would constitute the majority of the voting age population in one district, and would finally be able to elect candidates of their choosing to each board.
And the filings and answers have been flying back and forth between the two entities since.
In January, the board of education capitulated and scrapped its at-large system of electing members and decided to institute a district voting plan. The lawsuit says the concentration of black voters in the northeast portion of the county is so high that if district voting were allowed, it is almost certain a black candidate would win. Although several black candidates have sought countywide office, only one, the late Magistrate Judge Charles Floyd, has ever been elected.
Money was certainly a factor in the decision. The cash-strapped board of education can't spare the thousands of dollars it would take to fight the battle in court, a battle it would most likely lose.
On February 24th, U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten, Sr. signed an order that effectively settled the suit brought by the NAACP, replacing at-large voting. The decree noted that all parties agreed that single-member redistricting provides “an equal opportunity for Blacks to elect candidates of their choice in District 5” and that district is comprised of “48.68 percent of the total population and 46.2 percent of the voting age population.”
While all that was taking place, the county also filed its strenuous objection to the board of education’s decision to implement district voting to settle their portion of the NAACP suit.
In a stunning reversal, Batten- who had signed the original order- vacated his own February ruling on the proposed district voting map submitted from the Fayette County Board of Education and set a new hearing.
The county commission had filed a motion to vacate the consent decree and final judgement, arguing that the remedy the board of education and NAACP agreed to is not authorized by law and that it violated state law because a Section 2 violation hadn’t yet been established, that the decree cannot be imposed when there is no established violation of the Voting Rights Act and, more than that, the school board didn’t have the authority to make changes to the local constitutional amendment and that the method of filling vacancies is contrary to state law.
That left the board of education back where it started, but still embroiled in the lawsuit.
Just a week ago, in response to a redistricted map posed by the NAACP demographer, the county contended that, based on a recent deposition of the NAACP demographer William S. Cooper, the group didn’t include any other considerations in developing the map.
“Plaintiffs’ failure to explain the boundaries of District 5 by any non-racial standard in the face of the facts raised by county defendants leads to the inescapable conclusion that the district was drawn primarily based on race.”
And these filings are not running cheap. Checks in the amount of $10,105, $5,531, $144,467 and $197,581 have been dispensed to pay invoices from Strickland Brockington Lewis, LLP, the county’s voting rights act attorney.
“Precious tax dollars are being secretly squandered and wasted by the Fayette County Board of Commissioners in a futile effort to keep from adopting district voting in elections for county commissioners and school board members. Instead of choosing to voluntarily adopt district voting or settle the lawsuit brought by the NAACP in August 2011, defiant county commissioners are fastly approaching the expenditure of almost a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees, and the bills are still piling up ($227,686.13, to date - which does not include the $135,000/yr salary to the county's staff lawyer; totaling $363,686.13 in legal costs for just one year). The county commission has also caused the cash strapped school board to continue paying legal expenses by blocking a sensible effort by them to guard tax dollars by settling for district voting.
In the end, they say, legal fees to be paid by Fayette County taxpayers could top $1 million more and the county will still have to adopt district voting sooner or later.
“Why? Because the Voting Rights Act, which was enacted in 1965, outlaws illegal at-large voting practices that dilute minority voting strength and prevents minorities in a specific geographic area from electing a candidate of their choice. Like it or not it is the law of the land. Furthermore, no minority person has ever been elected as a county commissioner or school board member, in the 191 year existence of the County. Like it or not, African-Americans now make up 21% of the total population of Fayette County according to the 2010 census and the percentage is increasing each year, having doubled since 2000. Inevitably minorities will get elected to office. What is the point of spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to attempt to prevent what everyone concedes is the inevitable?
“The bills we have obtained indicate that Fayette County is paying up to $400.00 per hour for this work. The websites for the Federal Election Commission and the Georgia Campaign Financial Disclosure Commission indicate that Strickland Brockington & Lewis, and their partners, have contributed over $97,000 to various judges, and state and federal politicians, including some local politicians. It is a vicious cycle - you pay taxes to the Fayette County government, Fayette County government pays Strickland Brockington & Lewis, Strickland Brockington & Lewis pays the politicians back for the favor of hiring them to do work, which in the end will be of no benefit to the taxpayers of Fayette County who ultimately pay their bills. In the parlance of the MTV crowd we, as taxpayers, are getting punked.”
The NAACP points out that the surrounding counties of Henry, Spalding, Clayton, Coweta, Meriwether, Fulton, Dekalb, Douglas and Carrol counties have all adopted a district voting method of electing their county commissioners.
“Why is this method good enough for them but not for Fayette? Over one hundred and twenty counties and cities in Georgia have adopted district voting methods of election as the result of lawsuits. Another one hundred or so have done so voluntarily. We have not been able to find one who has ultimately survived a lawsuit.
“Why is the county government wasting hundreds of thousands of its citizens' tax dollars to defend the indefensible at a time when the school system is in a financial crisis? Even if the county government were to win the case in the federal district court it would only mean more court proceedings at the appellate level, and more hundreds of thousands of your tax dollars spent. When the county eventually losses this case they will also have to pay the NAACP lawyers causing the legal tab to be at least twice as much. Why is the county gambling with our tax dollars? To keep one minority person from becoming a member of the commission? Is this good governmental leadership and stewardship of our tax dollars or insider politics at the taxpayer's expense? We say that the mature adult fiscally conservative citizens of Fayette county should put an end to this nonsense.”
The group is urging voters to attend the next Fayette County commission meeting on Thursday, November 15th “which just happens to be the same day that your property taxes are due” to let the commission know their feelings.
Commission vice chairman Robert Horgan countered by saying that the NAACP’s demand for district voting is not right for Fayette County at this time.
“In the future, probably, but not right now and that’s not just the commission’s opinion. There has been discussion about this among all the municipalities and that has been the decision.”
Commissioner Steve Brown concurred, saying that “they can’t come up with a majority African-American district without taking the map in crazy directions.
“We can probably get a majority minority district, but the legislation specifically says African American districts. We can’t do that in Fayette County now. If the course continues, and with an eventual uptick in the economy, we could conceivably do this in five years. But not right now.
“We’re defending ourselves in a lawsuit and we’re at the mercy of the courts and we have to pay our attorneys. We don’t have a choice if we’re going to defend ourselves and we thing that it’s the right thing to do.”
Horgan charges the NAACP is trying to create a change where no one wants it right now, but that could be a viable option in the future. Admitting the ‘bills are high’ he said that attorneys for city and county entities are expensive and that Strickland Brockington Lewis is considered the best in the area of voting rights litigation. The cost of the county attorney’s salary, he added, is just that and whatever work he does for the county fits inside those parameters. Bottom line, said Horgan:
“If they hadn’t sued us, we wouldn’t be spending this money.”