NAACP threatens bigger legal bills if county, BoE pursue district voting appeal

The district voting lawsuit filed by the National NAACP will turn out to be a costly one for local taxpayers, and it’s not over yet, as appeals are being filed seeking to overturn the ruling.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is seeking nearly $850,000 in attorneys fees and costs for its share of the litigation, according to a court filing late last week. The funds would come from the two co-defendants in the case: the Fayette County Commission and the Fayette County Board of Education.

An itemized breakdown of the NAACP’s costs is not expected for about 30 days, and it’s not clear whether the judge would order the defendants to split the costs or devise another scheme to sort out who owes what amount.

In the meantime, both the county commission and board of education have authorized spending funds on appealing the district voting decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The lawsuit claimed that district voting was necessary to allow black residents of Fayette County to “elect the candidate of their choice.” The suit alleged that at-large voting discriminated against black residents, since no black resident had ever been elected to either the county commission or the board of education, and it listed as examples several black candidates who were defeated in recent election years by white candidates.

In a fact sheet distributed by the NAACP in August, the organization points out that in 2008, Fayette voters selected a white “mechanic” over two other black Republicans for the post, including one who was an attorney and vice-chair of the county Republican party and the other who was a certified public accountant.

“For far too long, Fayette County’s black community in particularly has lacked the representation on the board of commissioners and board of education to address many of the important issues that they face,” the fact sheet stated.

In addition to ordering the voting format switch, U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten also ordered a new district map that drew a specially-created 5th district. That district is key because it is now a “majority-minority” district which has a voting-age population where just over 50 percent are black voters.

District voting presents a significant change for county voters regardless of their race. Under the at-large voting method, all voters were allowed to vote on all five seats for both the county commission and the board of education. Under district voting, they will only be allowed to vote for one seat on each governing body: the one which corresponds with the geographic district in which the voter lives.

That is a significant loss of local control among Fayette voters, but proponents of district voting have argued that the use of geographic districts may result in the election of better representation since they will be accountable to a smaller amount of people instead of the entire county.

The NAACP is using the news of its court filing on the fees to pressure the county commission and board of education to drop the appeals. The NAACP contends that its costs, added to the county’s early legal fes, pushes the total legal bill beyond $1 million.

“The ongoing appeal process will be just as costly and will push legal costs much higher unless Fayette County leaders are convinced by irate taxpayers to drop their appeal and accept the reality that enough taxpayer dollars have been lost opposing district voting,” the NAACP said.

John Jones, president of the Fayette County NAACP, revealed that his organization attempted to settle the lawsuit with the county commission, but commission members rejected it. A settlement was brokered at one point with the board of education, but the court set it aside after learning that the commission objected to it.

The settlements would have cost the county about $10,000 in fees, Jones said.

“Instead, our county, under the misguided leadership of our currently elected board members, is now in the position of having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to pay their attorneys and our attorneys because they have lost,” Jones said. “Any astute business person, spending her own money and given the reality that at-large voting operates to discriminate in Fayette County, would have settled years ago for only $10,000. It is this type of decision making and wasteful spending of our taxpayer dollars which underscores our call for a change in the method of electing our county leaders.”

Jones also called for voters to toss out incumbents in favor of new officials who would “promise to put aside their own personal interests in power, unlike our current leadership, for the sake of what’s best for all members of the county.”

“We pose this question to our current county leaders: when they lose their appeal, will board members individually pay the balance that is due or will we as taxpayers continue to bear the burden of their bad decision making?” Jones said.

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