Fayette County will fight a federal judge’s order to change its nearly 200-year-old at-large voting system.
County commissioners voted unanimously Thursday evening to pursue an appeal to U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten’s May 21 ruling that favors district voting, in which candidates are elected by the people in each district, rather than countywide. The electoral method would give black candidates in Fayette County a shot at winning. No blacks have ever been elected to the County Commission or school board, a key reason the national NAACP sued the county to change its voting practice.
On Thursday, none of the five commissioners — all of whom are white men — would comment on their decision, which came after a 90-minute deliberation in a special meeting Thursday.
“Oh my goodness! They don’t need to waste any more money,” Fayetteville resident Lisa Jones said outside the county administration complex shortly after the commissioners announced their decision. Jones, the Political Action chair of the local NAACP, had arrived shortly after the decision was made, missing the action altogether. “I’m somewhat surprised.”
The county has spent nearly $300,000 so far fighting the NAACP lawsuit and that number could “get bigger,” interim county attorney Dennis Davenport said. The county has one of the most prominent civil rights law firms — the Midtown Atlanta firm of Strickland Brockington & Lewis — fighting the case.
It is unclear if the Board of Education, also part of the NAACP lawsuit, will pursue a similar course of action. The school board had tried to reach a settlement in the case but that pact never fully materialized.
“The school board has not had a meeting to officially discuss the issue,” Phil Hartley, attorney for the Fayette County Board of Education, said Thursday. “Obviously it will consider its options, especially in light of the county’s decision.”
In his ruling, Batten found that it was possible to create a majority-minority district with a 50.22 percent population of African-Americans. It involved creating a district that would include the town of Tyrone and the city of Fayetteville — where many black residents live. But critics have repeatedly said the county is not big enough to support district voting at this time and that creating such a district would involve gerrymandering.
“I’m not surprised,” said John E. Jones, president of the Fayette County branch of the NAACP. “It’s just the same old mentality, trying to hold on to the control and not wanting African-Americans to have any opportunity to have a seat at the table. I’m going to pray for them because they really need prayer. “
The two-year fight comes at a time when the county is looking at making major repairs to its water system and the school board has closed schools and laid off teachers to try to balance its budget.
“It’s just wasted money that could be going to better use,” Jones added.