Commissioners, Board of Ed. approve settlement

Commissioners, Board of Ed. approve settlement

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The new district map as approved by the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education showing the four voting districts. A fifth seat will be voted on via at-large voting.
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Commissioner Charles Rousseau speaks before the decisive 3-2 vote approving the settlement of the voting rights lawsuit. (Staff Photo by Christopher Dunn)

A hotly-debated chapter in Fayette County is coming to an end, with both the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education approving a settlement of the NAACP’s voting rights lawsuit first brought back in 2011. As part of the settlement, they approved a districting plan that has four seats elected via districts and a fifth seat to be chosen via at-large voting, and the county defendants agree to pay $125,000 towards legal fees for the plaintiffs.
The agreement, as laid out at Thursday night’s commission meeting, comes with several key points, including noting the agreement is “solely to avoid the further burden of litigation” and comes with no admission of wrongdoing and is not to be considered an admission of any liability or wrongdoing by the county. Additionally, it also requires that the plaintiffs acknowledge there was no intentional racial discrimination on the part of the county in their use and defense of the at-large voting system.
Thursday night’s Board of Commissioners meeting was a marathon. An already long agenda that started with Charles Oddo being again voted as Chairman led up to the executive session at 9:45 p.m. The commissioners returned to the dais at 11 p.m., the meeting not fully wrapping up until nearly midnight with each commissioner eager to share their thoughts on the settlement before the 3-2 vote, Randy Ognio and Steve Brown in opposition.
“The plaintiffs and defendants are all Fayette citizens, and the judge believed in our ability to figure things out. To go against the judge was not a gamble I was willing to make with the citizen’s money,” said David Barlow, saying that he believed it was in the best interest of the county to come to a settlement and avoid wasteful spending. “Working together to peacefully solve a problem is good for the health and wellbeing of Fayette County. If we would have continued to pursue this lawsuit and lost, our taxpayers lose. Some people have said fight no matter what it costs to protect our character. Many of my constituents didn’t know what the lawsuit was all about, but, when they heard how much it was costing with no guarantee of success, they were not in favor of continuing the lawsuit.”
His sentiments were shared by Chairman Oddo.
“This decision is not easy for any of us here, and that is because we love this county,” said Oddo, who added that he thought the county’s odds of prevailing on appeal were not good in his opinion and would have represented a much bigger chunk than the $125,000 legal fees they will be paying. “They could perhaps have topped $2 million dollars and no at-large district with it. Instead, we’re paying a nominal amount. It’s a bitter pill but a much less bitter pill to swallow.”
Charles Rousseau commended his colleagues for working towards resolution.
“I think this is the right time to end this and for us to move forward,” said Rousseau, pointing out such legislation as the Voting Rights Act as a court ruling showing there are issues that needed to be addressed. “I will pledge to do my part to continue to work with this community as a whole for us to be a good place to call home.”
Ognio and Brown spoke in their opposition to the settlement.
“I can’t help but wonder how we, as elected officials and three of us were elected by at-large, can be voting to take away three-fifths of the voting rights of our citizens that voted for us. I think that’s arrogant on our part,” said Ognio, saying they should not give up after already investing so much money in the fight. “I’m not sure how you put a price on a citizen’s right to vote for every commissioner.”
Brown spoke about the process and how it left him with a bad taste in his mouth.
“The lawsuit initiated by the NAACP was predicated on a lie to begin with that no African-American had or could be elected to countywide office,” said Brown, himself a former member of the Fayette County NAACP member and the only commissioner elected by both at-large and district methods, pointing out former Magistrate Judge Charles Flood who served two terms. “The evidence is incontrovertible in favor of the county, which probably explains why the NAACP is willing to take a new district voting map that does not even meet the minimum criteria for the Voting Rights Act, as well as having to swallow a major portion of their own legal fees.”
He was especially critical of the mediation process, calling it, “a system that failed us,” and saying, “the mediation was more like a sledgehammer than a thoughtful intervention.”
Earlier at its Tuesday night called work session, the Board of Education voted to approve the settlement agreement and redistricting plan.
Though both motions passed unanimously, it was clear Board of Education Chair Marion Key was troubled by the move. Following an hour in executive session, Key read the following statement prior to the vote: “Fayette County has, for many years, been unique among Metro Atlanta counties. What has made us unique is our school system, our land use plan, and our at-large voting. This at-large voting practice has resulted in our local elected officials being accountable to all citizens. As a board, we have done our due diligence in the defense of our school system and our county. I do not believe that the Boards of Education, either past or present, have violated any federal laws, but I do believe we could have solved our differences within the county, rather than in the court system. Even though we were not allowed to have our day in court, we did engage in a mediation process that resulted in this agreement. Given the time and effort that has gone into this process, I am optimistic that we can work together to provide the best possible education for our students and to contribute positively to the quality of life of our community.”
The settlement was the continuation of a long process between both sides of the lawsuit.
“We’re not deciding anything tonight. We’re announcing to the public a decision that was made back in October,” said board member Dr. Barry Marchman. “This is just the unveiling of that decision that was made several months ago.”
Board member Leonard Presberg expressed relief at the end of the battle in a post on Facebook. “Proud to have voted to settle the Voting Rights lawsuit. It’s time for a new chapter of equality and inclusiveness in Fayette County,” adding that he will now represent the new District 4.
The next step is to request that the state legislature officially redraw the new district maps as requested in a resolution passed by the Board of Commissioners in order to be prepared for this year’s coming elections.
“This is just the first step, and I have to hope it is the right step,” said Oddo. “I truly believe that the best course for the county is what we’ve come up with. I’ll say a prayer that the people will try to understand and that we will begin to come together.”

Christopher Dunn

Managing Editor Christopher Dunn has been with the Fayette County News since 2011, in addition to running Fayette Victory magazine. He is a graduate of Fayette County schools, as well as a graduate of Georgia State University with a degree in journalism. Follow him on twitter @fayettesports.