Fayette legislators decry BoE’s district voting change
State Rep. Ramsey: ‘Some fights are worth fighting’
The seismic shift in Fayette County school board politics — enacted last week by the Fayette County Board of Education — can’t be undone by the Georgia legislature, according to Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City.
The BoE’s move, undertaken to settle a federal voting rights lawsuit filed by the Fayette County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, strips all Fayette County voters of the right to elect all five school board members. Instead, voters will be limited to casting one vote for the BoE: for the seat representing the geographic district where said voters reside.
The at-large voting system, which allows voters a say on all five seats, is best for Fayette County, Ramsey said, “because it ensures our County Commission and Board of Education members are accountable to every voter in the county.”
Sen. Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, agrees with Ramsey.
“It always seemed to me that allowing the largest number of people to vote on issues of importance to them is the way to go,” Chance said.
Because of the very business of the school board, county residents are more directly affected by the district voting change, Chance said.
“You’re dealing with people’s children,” Chance said.
Ramsey, who is a private practice attorney, said he disagrees with the opinion that Fayette County was in a losing position in the lawsuit. As such, Ramsey thinks the BoE should have “vigorously defended” the suit instead.
“Some fights are worth fighting and to unconditionally surrender and say there wasn’t money to defend the suit will only embolden groups with extreme political agendas to seek to impose their will via the courts when they know they cannot succeed at the ballot box,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey also noted that it is “disturbing” that new school board chairman Leonard Presberg, appointed in November to fill the District 5 seat on the BoE, will avoid having to seek approval from voters countywide under the district voting proposal, which puts Presberg’s seat up for election in November.
“... Because of this system (which he supported), 80 percent of the county will never have the opportunity to vet him at the ballot box and make a decision as to whether he shares our values or not and is the right person to make decisions of profound importance to our children and their future,” Ramsey said.
Last week’s vote to approve the district voting settlement was split 3-2, with the unelected Presberg joined in approval by board members Terri Smith and Janet Smola. Dissenting were BoE members Marion Key and Bob Todd.
Under the current at-large system, Fayette County is divided into five geographic districts to insure that each area of the county has a voice on the Board of Education. The balance on that system is that every county voter gets to vote in all five BoE races.
That system will remain in place at least for the short term, until the district voting settlement agreed to by the BoE and NAACP is authorized by signature of the presiding federal judge.
Chance said a number of constituents he has talked to about district voting are concerned about the process in which the decision was made.
The NAACP lawsuit, which claimed that black residents were unable to elect candidates of their choice due to racism, pointed to the failed 2010 candidacy of college professor Laura Burgess, a black woman, who was defeated for the Post 5 board seat by Sam Tolbert, a white man. Tolbert, who ran as a Republican, got 68.4 percent of the vote while Burgess, running as a Democrat, got just 31.5 percent.
The lawsuit does not portray in detail any of the campaigning that preceded that race. For example, Burgess only returned one of this newspaper’s multiple phone calls for comment over the length of the campaign.
Furthermore, the record is unclear as to the extent of Mrs. Burgess’s fiscal capability in the election, as to date she still has not filed any campaign disclosure reports as required by state law to detail the amount of expenditures and the amount of contributions over $101.
The lawsuit also criticizes the election of Robert Horgan to the Post 1 seat on the Fayette County Commission in March 2006, as he won 51.7 percent of the vote over a field of four black challengers: two Democrats and two Republicans.
The NAACP lawsuit claims that Horgan made racially charged overtures following his election, based on a quote attributed to him in an Atlanta newspaper article saying that he ran for office “to maintain and preserve the heritage we have in our county.” The suit also claims, but fails to provide specific examples, that “political campaigns in Fayette County have been and continue to be characterized by subtle and overt racial appeals.”
The NAACP suit does mention the successful countywide election of Magistrate Judge Charles R. Floyd, an African American who was appointed to the seat in 2002 and didn’t face any challengers in the next two elections. Floyd died unexpectedly in 2010.