Learnard: ‘Stop the insanity!’

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Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in certain minority groups.

Most lawsuits that arise under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act involve challenges to at-large election scenarios like the one we have here in Fayette County.

Section 2 litigation usually involves a claim that an entity such as a county, a city or a school board is in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, resulting in an inability of minorities to elect a candidate of their choice.

Invariably, the county, city or school board settles the case. “Settling” typically means the at-large voting system is replaced by a district voting system. A new map is drawn and candidates are elected by district.

More than one hundred such cases have been filed and settled in Georgia, all resulting in a change from at-large to district voting.

In the greater Atlanta area, Butts, Carroll, Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett, Heard, Henry, Lamar, Meriwether, Pike, Spalding and Troup counties have changed to district voting.

Here in Fayette County, a lawsuit was filed in August of 2011. Plaintiffs are ten individuals and two organizations, the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and the Fayette branch of the NAACP. Defendants are the Fayette County Board of Education and the Fayette County Commission.

In 2011, the Fayette County Board of Education wisely decided to settle the case. The plaintiffs agreed to settle, to work together to establish voting districts, and to assure the Fayette County Board of Education liability would not exceed $5,000.

The Fayette County Commission later objected, however, so the settlement with the school system was vacated.

It helps to understand the precedents in Georgia. The list of lawsuits resulting in a change from at-large to district voting in Georgia counties reads a lot like, well, a list of Georgia counties. In every case, a lawsuit was filed claiming the current at-large voting policy was a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act; over 100 cases were settled by changing to district voting.

In March of 2014, the Fayette County Commission and the Fayette County Board of Education decided to appeal U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Batten’s ruling that Fayette is in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

The notion that Fayette County can be successful in this appeal has no reasonable basis in legal precedent. An appeal makes no legal, political, or financial sense.

And taxpayers bear the costs. Thanks to the Fayette County commissioners’ 2011 objection to a settlement, the case has already dragged on for nearly three years.

Because Fayette County lost, taxpayers must now cover the plaintiffs’ legal costs and expenses, a figure in excess of $900,000. That figure doesn’t include the cost of the county’s own lawyers, expected to have reached $300,000 so far.

What could have been settled in 2011 at a cost of only $10,000 – $5,000 for the county and $5,000 for the school board – now costs us $1.2 million. With an appeal, this figure could multiply. Fayette County taxpayers, get out your wallets.

I understand that Fayette County’s defense attorneys have indicated they could take this case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Well, sure, I could too if I was billing Fayette taxpayers $300 per hour.

$1.2 million is real money that will not go to music programs in our elementary schools, parapros in our first grade classrooms, or much needed infrastructure repairs countywide.

Fayette taxpayers have had to pay too much already. It is time to stop the insanity and end any further legal action that will only serve to pad the pockets of high priced lawyers and waste more of our hard-earned dollars.

Kim Learnard
Peachtree City, Ga.

[Ms. Learnard was reelected to a second four-year term on the Peachtree City Council last fall in an at-large election with no party labels.]