Fayette’s district voting lawyer fees rise to $283K
The district voting lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People continues to be a costly one for Fayette County government.
So far, the county commission has paid $283,522 to the Atlanta law firm which is representing it in the case. That cost does not include additional hourly charges caused by action of the county’s own attorney nor does it include the attorney’s fees paid by the Fayette County Board of Education, which was also listed as a defendant in the lawsuit.
The costs may rise significantly further if the judge on the case rules that the county is responsible for paying the NAACP’s legal fees as well.
The county was dealt a blow in May when U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten ruled that Fayette must institute district voting since the current at-large voting system was inherently discriminatory. The NAACP had argued that at-large voting prevented black residents, who have come to number around 20 percent of Fayette County’s population, from choosing the candidate of their choice.
At-large voting allows each Fayette voter to cast a ballot for all five seats on both the county commission and board of education. District voting, in contrast, would restrict voters to casting a ballot for just one of the five seats, corresponding with whichever geographic voting district the voter lives in.
Proponents of district voting contend it will improve citizens’ representation on both governing bodies because commissioners will be more responsive when they are assigned to cover a particular geographic district. Opponents claim it will lead to infighting among officeholders who will seek to advance the interests of their district ahead of the county’s overall interest.
The question to be resolved now is which district voting map will be adopted by the judge. The NAACP has submitted a map that excludes incumbent officeholders to create a majority-minority district which would allow for an open race. NAACP attorneys say this is crucial to providing the best shot for a minority candidate to be elected instead of having to face an incumbent who could have a built-in advantage at the polls.
The county has submitted a different district map that keeps an incumbent in each district. The county has argued that the NAACP’s map is in essence a gerrymander because of the way it meanders through a narrow swath of unincorporated area in northwest Fayette to reach a concentration of minority voters in Tyrone.
The NAACP is also seeking a special election under the new map, but it remains to be seen if the judge will order such a remedy.
District voting supporters have chided the county commission for spending the money on the lawsuit instead of simply avoiding the suit by adopting a district voting format for county commission races. District voting opponents have shot back that the expenses wouldn’t have been incurred if the NAACP had not filed the lawsuit.
While the suit was also filed against the Fayette County Board of Education seeking to adopt district voting for seats on the BoE as well, the commission’s fight against it has kept the BoE’s portion from being resolved since they are listed as co-defendants. Early on the cash-strapped BoE attempted to adopt district voting through a consent decree that was originally adopted by the judge, who later rescinded it after learning the county commission opposed the settlement.