MARIETTA — Come next month, the Cobb Board of Commissioners plans to take the unprecedented step of asserting its own commission district boundaries in a bid to keep Commissioner Jerica Richardson in office.
The board, Richardson confirmed in an interview with the MDJ, is expected to vote on supplanting a Republican-sponsored commission district map with a Democratic-sponsored map. Doing so would overrule the General Assembly and Gov. Brian Kemp.
“This particular activity has never happened before in the history of Georgia,” Richardson said, referring both to her potential removal from office, and the board’s plans.
The map advanced by Republicans and signed into law drew Richardson out of her District 2, and would make her ineligible for office come Jan. 1. A rival map by state Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, which was not passed, would leave her in her district.
As the MDJ previously reported, the board will attempt to invoke its “home rule” powers — which allow it to amend local legislation — to make Allen’s map the law of the land.
Georgia’s constitution provides for the home rule powers to protect local governments against state overreach. Local authorities, after placing an advertisement in the local legal organ for three straight weeks, can take votes at two consecutive meetings to amend a local bill.
The county placed an ad in Friday’s MDJ outlining its plans to amend House Bill 1154, the Republican map, by changing its boundaries to Allen’s map. The board will vote on the measure at its Oct. 11 and Oct. 25 meetings.
Using home rule in this way, however, has never been tried before, Richardson said.
In years past, the General Assembly has adopted local maps favored by a majority of an area’s local delegation (Democrats hold a one-vote majority in the 21-member Cobb County Legislative Delegation). But Richardson acknowledged that procedure has always been a “gentleman’s handshake.”
Allen’s maps (including for the Cobb school board) were unveiled shortly before the session began in January, and he said repeatedly he’d worked for “a fair process with fair maps.”
But Republicans argued Allen’s maps were a partisan power grab that would shore up and ultimately expand the Democrats’ 3-2 majority on the Board of Commissioners.
Richardson said rumors began circulating early on that the GOP planned to draw one, if not two commissioners out of their seats.
“Which is why we proceeded with bringing something to a vote, to show that we were supportive of the method of transparency that was being utilized by the local delegation,” Richardson said, referring to a symbolic vote along party lines by the board to endorse Allen’s maps.
Before Allen’s maps were ever filed, however, state Reps. John Carson, R-northeast Cobb, and Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, dropped the map which drew Richardson into Commissioner JoAnn Birrell’s District 3. Richardson had months prior moved to the northern end of her own district, not far from the boundary with Birrell’s.
“The way in which these maps were designed were, to be frank, (by) a set of rogue representatives,” Richardson said.
Carson did not respond to a request for comment.
Setzler said, “The ‘home rule’ powers given to cities and counties are similar, but not exactly the same. One key difference in their home rule powers is that cities in Georgia may enact their own reapportionment plans, but counties may not. That is a simple, irrefutable matter of Georgia law.”
Debate and speculation ensued over where that left Richardson. Attorneys for the General Assembly said there was little to no case law establishing precedent. In March, the commissioner said she would not step down, but acknowledged she would be “forced to vacate” her post come next year.
Around that time, she said, the county’s legal department began working on a response in consultation with outside counsel.
The county, however, said Richardson “misunderstood” a conversation with County Attorney Bill Rowling.
“The attorney he referenced in that conversation is in our county attorney’s office. There is no outside counsel involved,” the county said in a Friday statement to the MDJ.
Commissioner Keli Gambrill previously told the MDJ she wouldn’t support the home rule push, arguing the county had no legal standing to challenge the legislature.
On Friday, Commissioner JoAnn Birrell said the same.
“I do not support amending the commission maps that were passed by the General Assembly in February 2022 and signed into law by the governor in March 2022. Not only does it cause confusion for the citizens of Cobb County which is entirely disrespectful, it isn’t even legal,” Birrell said.
In her Friday afternoon newsletter, Lisa Cupid, chair of the Cobb Board of Commissioners, explained why she backed Richardson’s plan.
“The drastic nature of the state’s action has undermined the cooperation that generally does occur and should occur with counties and their local delegation when redrawing district lines. It has also undermined the expectation voters should have in trusting that those they elect to serve will be able to do so,” Cupid wrote, adding, “I could not sit idly by and watch the integrity of this board’s composition and our citizens’ vote be callously undermined.”
In addition, she continued, “I cannot overlook that such a threat to our county is a possible threat to any county within the State of Georgia. I look forward to voting to support the exercise of our home rule authority, our county, and our citizens.”
Richardson argued the challenge to the General Assembly is about standing on the principle of local control.
“Once this happens, though, we understand that (home rule) has not been used this way. We’re in unprecedented territory. So truly any response we have, would create precedent as a response,” she said.
As the office charged with defending the state’s laws in court, Attorney General Chris Carr would likely make an immediate challenge to the board’s effort to invoke home rule. As to how the case would play out from that point, there is, again, no precedent.
“The attorneys have done a lot of research on this. There have been a lot of those considerations already factored in … It is understood to be a case of first impression. So on the face and merit of it, it deserves to be adjudicated, not dismissed,” Richardson said.
Joseph Young, an attorney who formerly served as a legislative counsel to Gov. Roy Barnes, was dubious the county’s argument would work.
“What struck me about Cobb’s proposal … was that while it was unique, that very uniqueness was troubling,” Young said. “A solution that simple would have been adopted before. The reason why it hasn’t is that the constitutional provision doesn’t allow the county to modify its commission districts by ordinance.”
Young referred to portions of the constitution which bar counties from using local control to affect elected offices or the “composition, form, procedure for election or appointment, compensation, and expenses and allowances” of its governing body.
“So the short answer is that the county can enact reasonable ordinances to modify its local acts, but not on the subject of the commissioners and their districts,” Young added. “…I would be very surprised if they were successful at this effort, in light of the specific constitutional ban on such an ordinance.”
Were Allen’s maps successfully adopted, the ramifications could be far-reaching for future redistricting in all of Georgia’s 159 counties.
“The impact to all the counties within Georgia, it would be real,” Richardson said, adding that the county’s legal team has talked with other jurisdictions about its plans.
Under the county’s proposed amendment, Allen’s map would take effect Jan. 1 and not affect the 2022 elections for commission districts 1 and 3, Richardson said. While it could create whiplash for thousands of voters, Richardson argued there’s no pretty solution at hand.
“We’re in an imperfect situation, an imperfect circumstance. That’s just where we are. It’s not going to be this clean, happy go lucky … However, it is a perfect check and balance moving forward,” she said.
State Rep. Ginny Ehrhart, R-west Cobb, provided the following statement to the Journal in response to Richardson’s announcement:
“It’s a shame that Commissioner Richardson has allowed herself to be misled by either bad legal counsel or her own general misunderstanding of the Georgia Constitution. It’s likely both. The Cobb BOC map passed the Georgia legislature as a fully lawful general bill. The process was constitutional, appropriate, and in accordance with the Voting Rights Act. Less than a year before the anticipated redistricting process, Ms. Richardson decided to up and move clear to the other side of her district, a foolish act given that everyone knows district lines can change during that process and there’s no guarantee your new house will be in the newly drawn district. It is not the responsibility of the Georgia Legislature to make sure district lines are drawn to Ms. Richardson’s specifications every time she decides to relocate. In fact, it’s not about her at all. And yet she now wants Cobb taxpayers to foot the bill for a doomed lawsuit that, let’s be frank, is more about her own desires than what is best for Cobb residents,” Ehrhart said.
It appears that Ms. Richardson is using Cobb County’s Legal Staff and possibly other Staff members for a personal legal issue. If so, she must immediately reimburse the County for the use of legal resources. I suggest that the reimbursement be made at prevailing outside Cobb County legal rates.
If she wants to challenge Georgia’s General Assembly… fine… just do it with personal Richardson funds NOT Cobb Taxpayer dollars!
How much will this proposed lawsuit cost the Cobb County taxpayers?
If this woman wants to run in a certain district, move INTO that district to run. Simple. The STATE doesn't and should not change laws just for YOU, Ms. All About Me. Or are you afraid you can't win again without all the cheating?
The fun thing is, she really doesn't want to be a county commissioner any way. It was just the first step in her planned career path.
The unprecedented action of the state to in effect prematurely end the term of a Commissioner is of deep concern, and is voter nullification in my opinion. The county's plan to counter with unprecedented use of home rule sets up a check and balance between the state and it's counties. It's a question that deserves to be asked.
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