Barlow, Ognio: Let’s keep at-large voting

Fayette County commissioners-elect Randy Ognio (L) and David Barlow. Photos/File.

One of the biggest issues facing the three new county commissioners who will take office in January is the ongoing legal battle over the process of electing county commissioners and school board members.

The lawsuit seeks to ditch the current at-large voting practice in favor of district voting, which would restrict all county residents to voting for just one of the five seats on both the commission and the board of education. That is a big change from the current at-large process, which affords voters the luxury of voting for all five seats on both boards.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has joined a handful of Fayette residents in filing the federal lawsuit, contends that district voting — combined with a new specially-drawn district map — is necessary to elect a minority to office.

Although the NAACP may be hoping for the new commissioners to settle the lawsuit, it does not appear such a resolution is likely, as incoming commissioners Randy Ognio and David Barlow support the current at-large voting system.

Ognio said he thinks a minority could be elected if that person “gets involved” in county issues. Ognio said while he is willing to listen to those who are in favor of district voting, he is concerned that such a system would limit the ability of commissioners to have an effective government.

“The way I feel about it, I represent everybody, not just in my district, but people in other districts. I want them to bring issues to me so I can be listening to find out what we need to do,” Ognio said.

Barlow, who cautioned that he had not yet read the district voting lawsuit, said he spoke recently with a number of county commissioners from different areas in metro Atlanta which used district voting, and most of them said they only worry about representing their district instead of the county as a whole.

“In my mind, I confirmed my suspicions that you sufficiently disenfranchise 80 percent, in our case, of the voters who would not have any representation by each specific commissioner,” Barlow said.

Barlow added that regardless of where the commission candidates live, every voter in the county should have “the opportunity to vote someone in, or vote someone out.”

Barlow also noted that at a recent meeting of the North Fayette Homeowners Association he was cornered by local attorney Wayne Kendall — who previously represented the NAACP in the federal lawsuit — in an public effort to force Barlow into supporting district voting, in large part because so many governments in Georgia already use district voting formats.

Subsequent to that meeting, Barlow found out that 36 of 159 county governments in Georgia use some form of at-large voting.

The Citizen was unable to reach the third incoming commissioner, Charles Oddo, by press time Monday.

The federal lawsuit filed by the NAACP is expected to be resolved in a matter of months. Based on one of the judge’s rulings in the case, it may have an uphill climb because of case law that requires a newly-drawn district map to have a 50 percent “plus one” majority of black voters.

The map submitted by the NAACP falls short of that mark, with just 46.2 percent of the voting age population being black voters. The NAACP has countered that although black voters remain a minority in the newly drawn map, they would still stand an excellent chance at electing a black representative to the commission.

That argument failed to sway U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten Sr. in May when he denied an effort to force the county to adopt district voting for the primary election along with two new district maps for the county commission and board of education seats.

The Fayette County Board of Education agreed to settle its portion of the lawsuit earlier this year by adopting district voting in a consent decree reached with the NAACP and plaintiffs in the case. But that process was halted on the objection of the county commission, and the judge overturned the settlement on the basis that the county had not agreed to it.

The board of education next month will take on two new members in Barry Marchman and Mary Kay Bacallao who may reverse the BoE’s legal tack in the lawsuit as well. They will replace outgoing board members Janet Smola and Terri Smith, both of whom supported the move to district voting.

The one hindrance on the issue for the BoE is the current budget situation as the school system is looking to trim nearly $20 million to be able to balance its budget for the 2013-2014 school year.

Citizen Bob
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Back to "separate but equal"...?

Getting a particular candidate elected is a process that certainly deserves attention, but voters are best served by looking beyond the process and focusing on outcomes: how well the office discharges its responsibility to equitably benefit all Fayette citizens.

Since moving into Fayette, I don't recall any significant or ongoing accusations leveled at the Boards of Commissioners and Education for not providing their county services fairly.

If district voting resulted in the election of a minority board member, the plaintiffs would presumably be satisfied. But having one minority vote on a 5-member board isn't enough to provide equitable public benefits to county citizens- and that's the outcome that we should all insist on. Lost in the fray is the fact that a board of five minority, majority, or mixed members can provide equitable service.

Democratic Fayetteville City Councilman Ed Johnson was elected with 62% of the vote in a city that's 55% white. I'm confident he earned the minority votes, but he also demonstrated the integrity, character, intellect, and judgment to convince a large number of white voters that he was better suited for the job than the opposing white incumbent. Many members of the Fayette County Issues Tea Party supported him for the same reasons.

From my perspective, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are telling minority candidates that they don't have the right stuff to win a county-wide election; "We'll Balkanize the county so you can at least win something". I'm confident that other minority candidates with traits similar to Ed Johnson's can win county-wide office. They can do it on their merits without the echos of the old "separate but equal" programs. They don't have to be relegated to the JV team- they're more than capable of successfully competing at the varsity level.

stranger than f...
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How much will it cost?

I am not questioning whether it will be helpful for minorities to stay with at-large voting. I am concerned about how much this fight for principle (even a principle that will help those suing the County) will end up costing, and what are the probabilities that the County will win the lawsuit? It seems that voting rights legal actions usually are decided in favor of the minority represented. As a taxpayer, I am not interested in waging a fight unless there is a very good chance of winning.

ginga1414
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Citizen Bob, I Agree Completely

The citizens of Fayette County and Fayetteville have more "integrity, character, intellect, and judgment" than to let a color barrier prevent them from voting for the best person to fill the job.

I couldn't vote for Ed Johnson because I don't live within the city limits of Fayetteville. However, I did campaign for him because I felt that he was a superb candidate and the best person for the job. When Mr. Johnson was running for the city council position, I attended the candidate forum and was pleased to hear that he and I shared the same opinions as to how our local government should be run.

With at-large voting, every citizen is permitted to vote for every candidate. No one is put in a color box. It is a level playing field. I think most candidates would rather be elected by "the content of their character" than the color of their skin.

rmoc
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Necessary to elect a minority

When does color matter ..THE NAACP is becoming the supporter of the minority overriding the majority. You want a minority rep move to Clayton..

stranger than f...
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Cost/benefit analysis

Has anyone determined the legal costs involved in fighting the NAACP on this issue? Also, what are the chances of winning/losing the fight? I am unclear if this is a winnable battle or not and as a taxpayer, I am not interested in spending my money for merely a moral victory.

bladderq
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District Voting

I think when this came up w/ the Board of Ed one of our elected reps, who is a lawyer by trade, said it needed to be fought for the principle. I've yet to see any of them step up pro bono to fight for their principle.

stranger than f...
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Look at the history

Mr. Barlow has a long history of borrowing money from others without repaying them, and Mr. Ognio has a history of acting out of anger instead of thoughtful reflection. I fear that these guys are not the right people to make rational financial decisions about a potentially volatile issue when none of their personal money is at stake.

Husband and Fat...
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Stanger

You are correct in your assessment. Mr. Barlow doesnt have a clue about finances and his way out has been less than honorable. But he prayed, was forgiven by god and the courts and here we are today. Lets just hope that he isnt swayed by part time job opportunities that will be offered to him by people who want something from him.

I am less afraid of Mr. Ognio. Yes, he has a temper, and yes, he is not the most eloquent speaker, but he has run a successful business and he does seem to care. Lets hope that when the fire gets hot, he can keep a cool rational head.

My initial concern is thier vote for Chairman. The correct choice would be Mr. Oddo. But I doubt these two will vote for him because they both owe SB too much for getting them elected.

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