MARIETTA — The first Board of Commissioners meeting of 2023 was derailed Tuesday as the board’s two Republicans refused to vote on county business amid Cobb’s ongoing redistricting controversy, and were asked to leave the dais by Democratic Chairwoman Lisa Cupid.
Republican Commissioners JoAnn Birrell and Keli Gambrill said they would not cast votes while the county remains at odds with the state government, and embroiled in a constitutional dispute, over its effort to redistrict itself via its home rule powers.
The two Republicans were ultimately asked to leave the dais by Cupid, who cited county rules requiring commissioners vote on every item unless they are faced with a conflict of interest. The duo would spend the remainder of the meeting seated in back of the room while the board’s three Democrats carried on with voting.
“On December 30, I took an oath for the fourth time to uphold the Constitution of the United States, the state of Georgia and Cobb County. This is unconstitutional. The amended map is unconstitutional, and against state law,” Birrell told the MDJ. “…The board, as constituted, is not constitutional.”
Tuesday’s was the first meeting since two conflicting county commission district maps took effect on Jan. 1. The first, passed by Republicans in the General Assembly last year and signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp, sparked controversy as it drew Democratic Commissioner Jerica Richardson out of her seat midway through her four-year term.
The second is a map the Democratic commissioners adopted in October in an untested assertion of its home rule powers, which the county says allows it to amend state laws including redistricting. That map would keep Richardson safely within the boundaries of District 2, which she currently represents.
The county’s map has been subject to a legal challenge from east Cobb activist Larry Savage, but Superior Court Judge Ann Harris has yet to issue a ruling.
The trouble started at the top of Tuesday morning when Birrell asked Deputy County Attorney Debbie Blair which maps were in effect for the meeting. Blair responded that the county’s map remains in effect until the courts say otherwise.
“I’m just not comfortable with the makeup of the board, not knowing, with this still pending. This is a state issue that we don’t control,” Birrell protested, but she was told by Cupid the issue was not on the agenda and not up for discussion.
Then as the board moved to its first agenda item, Birrell and Gambrill voted to abstain.
Blair referred back to the board’s rules stipulating commissioners must cast a vote. The two Republicans didn’t budge, prompting Cupid to call for an extended recess. And when they returned, they continued to sit silently behind the dais.
“Commissioners,” Cupid said amid the standoff, “I’m asking for you to please vote on agenda item No. 3.”
But vote they did not, and after another recess, the meeting was carried on without them.
“If we’re going to have commissioners not abide by our rules of procedure, I would ask that we adjourn for those commissioners to remove themselves from the dais,” said Cupid.
At the meeting’s close, Cupid added, “I would like to see our full board represented here at our next meeting. But when we come together at our next meeting, we will be abiding by our rules and procedure.
“…I cannot allow for this board to be a circus, for people to share differences of opinion that are completely outside of our rules and procedure. I hope that the public understands that, and I hope that our commissioners understand that,” Cupid added.
The county’s position remains that even if its home rule map is ultimately overturned, any votes taken by Richardson in the meantime will not be compromised.
“With regards to the legal matters and whatnot, I certainly don’t have a comment on any of those things, but the law is the law. The (county’s) map is the law ... and until our court overturns it it is still law,” Richardson told the MDJ.
But Birrell and Gambrill gave no indication they would back down, and the Board of Commissioners has two additional voting meetings scheduled this month.
Gambrill told the MDJ, “This whole (home rule) resolution that they’re stating we are legal on and we have followed along is not because it contains false and misleading information. So until somebody makes a ruling on that, you’re going to continue to have this discord.”
She added that it’s time for the state — and particularly Attorney General Chris Carr’s office — to step in.
“They really need to take action,” Gambrill said, “and as soon as they take the action, this will be resolved.”