Commission qualifying dates to be delayed for map OK?

There is a chance that qualifying for the three seats on the Fayette County Commission will be delayed beyond the May 23-25 qualifying period.

That’s because the new five-district map approved by a federal judge March 27 may not be fully vetted in time by the U.S. Department of Justice.

County Attorney Scott Bennett told the commission last week that he expects the maps to be approved in a six-week timeframe. But if there is a delay in the process, the county will have to seek an order from U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten Sr. to stay qualifying until the maps can get that final approval, Bennett said.

Technically, Bennett said, Fayette County does not currently have a district map to elect commissioners because the judge’s order struck down the three-district map the county has used for a number of years. Therefore it cannot be used in any election going forward, Bennett said.

The new five-district map approved by Judge Batten cannot be used until the Justice Department has approved it.

A DOJ spokeswoman said last week that such reviews can take 60 days, perhaps more, depending on whether federal officials need more information on the proposal.

Three commission seats are up for grabs this year, posts 1, 2 and 3 held by Robert Horgan, Herb Frady and Lee Hearn. Two challengers have already announced plans to seek election: David Barlow has said he will run against Frady and Randy Ognio has said he will oppose Hearn.

The other two district posts, currently held by Steve Brown and Allen McCarty, will be up for election in another two years. Although when they were elected both seats were at-large, the new map ties each seat to a specific geographic district for purposes of qualifying.

The five-district map under review is the same map the commission approved Feb. 14 in a rushed bid to get it considered by the Georgia legislature. But according to Fayette County legislative delegation chair Rep. Virgil Fludd, D-Tyrone, a delay in legal advertising kept it from being brought forward, and the session ended without the bill being brought forward.

That’s when local attorney Rick Lindsey of Peachtree City filed a lawsuit against the commission to strike down the three-district map based on the disproportionate population in each of the districts. That filing in turn led to Judge Batten’s approval of the five-district map.

The new five-district map has about 21,000 residents in each district. On the previous three-district map, the smallest district has 17,847 people and the largest has 33,123 people.

The new map also retains the at-large voting process for all five county commission seats, which means that Fayette County voters may vote on all five seats regardless of which district they live in. It also ties all five seats to a particular district, whereas currently two of the five seats are at-large, meaning they are not tied to geographic districts, which means those candidates can qualify for the posts regardless of where they live in Fayette County.

In the meantime, the county is contesting a separate federal lawsuit filed by the Fayette County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and several individual citizens, who claim the at-large voting makes it impossible for a minority candidate to be elected to countywide office.

The NAACP wants the county to be forced to adopt district voting for each commission seat, which would allow residents to vote only for the candidate in their district, removing their ability to vote for the other four commission seats.

The NAACP lawsuit seeks to force the county to create a majority minority district in which a black person would stand a better chance of being elected to office.

Judge Batten noted in the consent order that the new map approval would not affect the NAACP district voting lawsuit.

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