Fayette appeals district voting

The Fayette County Commission is petitioning the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in an effort to overturn a federal judge’s ruling that forced district voting to elect commissioners and board of education members in future elections.

The board of education last week voted 3-1 to also appeal the case, but for now district voting remains in play for the current 2014 election season.

Under district voting, residents can only vote for the commission and board of education post associated with the district in which they live. Under the county’s previous at-large voting system, voters could cast a ballot on all five posts for both governing bodies.

The district voting ruling from U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten concluded a lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which argued that black residents were unable to elect "the candidate of their choice" in previous county elections. The lawsuit argued that Fayette's at-large voting format prevented any black candidate from winning election to the county commission or the board of education.

Batten instituted a district voting map that includes a specially-carved 5th District, drawn to include a voting age population consisting of more than 50 percent black voters.

While the district voting map wasn't finalized until late February, Batten in May of last year issued an order declaring district voting the law of the land in Fayette County. However, no black candidate is on the ballot for the Post 5 Board of Education seat, as Democrat Leonard Presberg, the appointed incumbent, will face Republican challenger Dean Dutton in the November general election.

The Post 5 commission race did draw a black candidate, as Democratic challenger Pota Coston seeks to win the seat from incumbent commissioner Allen McCarty, who is a Republican. That race will also be settled in November's general election.

Dan Lowry, one of the local residents listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told The Citizen in a letter that the lawsuit was not about race in the least.

However, one of the underlying facts needed to be proven in the lawsuit was that the county’s district voting format presented black candidates from getting elected to office. The lawsuit specifically referred to the fact that no black resident had ever been elected to either the county commission or the board of education.

“The lawsuit brought by plaintiffs and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) was not about getting African Americans elected to office,” Lowry wrote. “It was about getting people elected to office, regardless of their race or ethnicity, who will represent the interests of the people who live in District 5.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of several local residents in conjunction with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The board of education’s appeal is noteworthy because it initially had voted to settle the district voting lawsuit by adopting its own district voting map. While it was first approved by the court, Judge Batten later overturned the settlement because the county commission, listed as co-defendant in the case, had not approved of the settlement.

The school system has also seen a change in its financial fortunes since the attempted settlement, as the closing of several schools helped realign the school board’s budget to create a projected surplus by the end of this school year of several million dollars.

School board member Leonard Presberg has been the sole local official opposing an appeal of the district voting lawsuit, citing a wish to spend the school system’s money on matters that directly affect students instead. Presberg is an appointed member of the school board, and is seeking the new Post 5 district seat as a Democrat in the November election.

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