Time crunch as Fayette map awaits OK
A big question mark hangs over three Fayette County Commission elections this year, including the shapes and sizes of the districts and whether current qualifying dates will hold.
A new five-district map for county commission seats was approved last week by a federal judge thanks to a lawsuit filed by local attorney Rick Lindsey.
But there is still a chance the map won’t be approved in time for the May 23-25 qualifying period, as it must be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice, which has a 60-day initial review period that can be extended, according to a department spokesperson.
That 60-day timeframe, if fully exhausted but not extended, pushes the decision back to May 26 at the very earliest. That’s three days after the qualifying period for the commission posts begins in advance of the July 31 primary election.
Each of the posts up for election this year is a district post, not at-large. Since qualifying as a candidate hinges on residing in a specific geographic location, the boundaries of the districts are crucial.
A spokesperson for the Justice Department said local governments have previously asked for voting map changes to be reviewed on a fast-track basis, but there is no indication as to whether that is possible for the new Fayette County Commission map.
Three commission seats are up for grabs this year, posts 1, 2 and 3 held respectively by Robert Horgan, Herb Frady and Lee Hearn. Two challengers have already announced plans to run as well: David Barlow said he will run against Frady and Randy Ognio said he will oppose Hearn.
The order approving the map was signed by U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten Sr. to resolve a lawsuit filed against the county commission by Lindsey, who challenged the disproportionate three-district voting scheme currently used by the commission.
Of the three districts, the smallest district has 17,847 people and the largest has 33,123 people. The commission on Feb. 14 approved the five-district map, which has each district with about 21,000 residents each.
The new map still applies 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. The two at-large posts are not up for election this year.
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.
The map failed to make it through the legislative process for approval, because it was not advertised far enough in advance to be considered as a local bill, according to Rep. Virgil Fludd, D-Tyrone.
Fludd dismissed accusations that he held up the map approval process because he favored a district voting scheme proffered by the Fayette County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The bill’s death in the legislature appeared to kill the five-district map until the lawsuit filed by Lindsey, who represented himself as the only listed plaintiff.
The county agreed with Lindsey’s lawsuit and joined him in support of a consent order allowing Judge Batten to approve the maps.
The new map was approved by the commission on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, in an effort to get the appropriate legislation introduced at the legislature. It was authorized on a a 3-1 vote, with Commissioners Lee Hearn, Robert Horgan and Herb Frady in favor and Commissioner Steve Brown voting against; Commissioner Allen McCarty was out of town.
The commission was roundly criticized by residents for giving just several day’s notice before voting on the new map, providing little time to digest the proposal. About a dozen residents weighed in at a public hearing before the commission voted to approve the new map.
The reasoning for the rush, county officials said, was to make sure the legislature had time to craft the legislation so it could be approved this session. As it developed, the General Assembly did not even consider the legislation.