Fayette Commission signals no lawsuit settlement

It is almost a certainty that the Fayette County Commission and the Fayette County NAACP will be duking it out in federal court.

The commission announced last week that it intends to keep the at-large voting method for all five county commission seats. That is the exact opposite of the remedy sought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in a lawsuit filed in August against the county commission and also the Fayette County Board of Education.

Under the at-large voting method, every voter in the county can vote for all five commission posts, regardless of where the voter lives. With district voting, voters would be limited to voting for the one commission seat assigned to the geographical district the voters live in. All candidates for that one seat also would be required to live within that district.

The NAACP claims the district voting format would allow black residents a more fair opportunity to seek elected office by creating a special “majority minority” district.

The announcement from the commission came Thursday night in advance of a vote scheduled for Tuesday night (Feb. 14, after press deadline) to adopt a new district map containing either three or five separate commission districts. Updates from last night’s meeting are available at www.TheCitizen.com.

What remains uncertain is whether or not the county’s forthcoming challenge to the NAACP suit will affect the approval of a settlement negotiated between the NAACP and the Board of Education to adopt district voting this year.

The lawsuit names the school board and the county commission as co-defendants, which leaves the possibility that the settlement might not be approved in time to be enacted for the coming election year.

That settlement calls for the District 5 seat, currently held by appointee Leonard Presberg, to go up for election this year along with the planned expiring seats in Districts 1 (incumbent Janet Smola), 2 (incumbent Terri Smith) and 3 (incumbent Marion Key).

The clock is ticking for approval of the BoE settlement in the lawsuit. The Fayette County Board of Elections will need some lead time in advance of the July 31 primary election to notify voters of the changes to BoE voting districts as proposed on a map that was adopted by the board in conjunction with the proposed settlement that both parties agreed upon.

Early voting in that election will start July 9, further compressing the time frame for the BoE settlement to be enacted. It is currently awaiting the signature of the federal judge assigned to the case.

The settlement between the BoE and the NAACP noted that the new district map would create a scenario in District 5 “in which blacks comprise 48.68 percent of the total population and 46.2 percent of the voting age population.”

The settlement also took the BoE off the hook for paying all but $5,000 of the NAACP’s attorneys fees. Under the federal Voting Rights Act, the loser of such litigation must pay the attorney’s fees for the prevailing party in addition to their own.

Which makes the county’s move a bit of a legal gamble, although the county is represented by a firm that specializes in voting rights cases: Strickland Brockington Lewis LLP of Atlanta.

The commission’s announcement Thursday that it will seek to keep at-large voting for all five commission seats is in stark contrast to the way the BoE handled its 3-2 vote to settle the lawsuit and adopt the commensurate new district maps.

While the settlement document was dated Dec. 15, the settlement was added to the BoE’s website Jan. 9, the same day as the meeting.

Voting for the settlement were school board members Leonard Presberg, Janet Smola and Terri Smith. Voting against the settlement were Marion Key and Bob Todd.

That left BoE newcomer Presberg, appointed by his fellow board members in November, voting in favor of a drastic change to the way the board is elected — despite the fact that he himself has never been subject to a countywide election.

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