Commission OK’s five-district map; retains at-large voting process
Despite several concerns that the process was “rushed” with little advance notice, a new voting district map was approved tonight by the Fayette County Commission.
The map breaks the county into five separate county commission districts but the commission will retain at-large voting, which allows all voters the ability to vote on all five county commission races.
County officials said the map needed to be approved tonight in time to submit the next day for consideration by the Georgia legislature. The legislature’s deadline to accept such matters is February 15, officials said.
As to why the maps haven’t been discussed by the commission in public before last week’s announcement of the matter, several officials noted that the maps were tied at least in part with the ongoing district voting lawsuit filed in federal court by the Fayette County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
That lawsuit wants to force the county to adopt district voting, which would limit all county voters to vote only for the commission seat correlating with where they live, instead of the current process that allows all county residents to vote on all five commission races.
The NAACP argues that district voting creates a more fair opportunity for a minority to become elected to the commission by creating a special voting district that features a “majority minority” voting block.
Under the new five-district map, if approved by the legislature and the U.S. Justice Department in coming months, all five commission seats would be tied to a particular geographic district, meaning that potential candidates must live in the district for which they are seeking to be elected.
Currently, there are only three geographic districts with such a requirement; the remaining two commission seats are “at-large” meaning they are available for any candidate in the county irregardless of where he or she lives.
Commission Chairman Herb Frady defended residents’ current ability to vote on all five commission seats, saying that if he has the power to vote to spend the county’s money, all voters should be able to have a say on whether he is elected to office or not.
Commissioner Lee Hearn said he has worked for several governments where district voting was in place, and those elected officials were more concerned with what was happening in their district than doing what is best for the county as a whole.
“I think as Americans and as Fayette Countians, we need to look out for what’s best for our entire community,” Hearn said.
County Attorney Scott Bennett said the district map approved by the commission was “balanced” to make sure that nearly the same amount of people live in each district.
Several residents said they felt the board should have waited to resolve the NAACP district voting lawsuit before adopting a new voting map.
Others asked why the topic is only coming up now, having just been announced at last week’s commission meeting and already being up for a vote despite the fact that the Census concluded in 2010.
County Commissioner Steve Brown responded that last year the legislature only wanted to deal with such map change requests from state municipalities since they were to have elections last year. There were no county elections last year, Brown noted, and thus the counties’ requests were pushed off for a decision this year.
The five-district map approved by the commission will retain the process of having the chairman elected each year by his fellow commissioners.
Brown had proposed retaining a three-district system that would have one of the at-large seats dedicated to the chairmanship, which he argued was crucial since the chairman sits on several regional committees making key decisions that directly affect Fayette County.
Brown was unable to win over his fellow commissioners, as he cast the only vote against the five-district map. Voting in favor were Frady, Hearn and Commissioner Robert Horgan. Commissioner Allen McCarty was not present, as he was out of town on a pre-arranged 50th anniversary trip with his wife.
One concern about having voters elect a chairman was that the county could be stuck with a bad selection for four years in a worst case scenario, whereas voters could lobby the commissioners for a change once every year under the current format.
One resident asked if the county could be penalized for failing to adopt the maps tonight. County Attorney Bennett said if the county held an election this year with the older map still in place, it could face a lawsuit and be forced to hold a new special election, which would have an additional cost to the county.