Sandy Springs State Rep. Wendall Willard says he does not see any basis for the lawsuit filed on Monday by the Georgia Black Legislative Caucus.
“It’s surprising that they’ve sued the state. They haven’t sued the cities,” said Willard, who is also attorney for the City of Sandy Springs. “They claim a dilution of voting power, but in fact there hasn’t been any dilution. The people who live in these cities still have the ability to vote, as they have in presidential elections, state elections, county elections - now we’ve added for them the benefit of voting in a local election.”
On Monday, a group of legislative leaders and residents led by Rev. Joseph Lowery sued Gov. Nathan Deal in federal court over claims that forming new cities that include Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, Milton, Johns Creek and Chattahoochee Hills was a violation of minority voting rights. The plantiffs want to dissolve each city’s charter citing a violation of the Voting Rights Act and state legislative procedure. The caucus wants a preemptive strike against the formation of Milton County as well.
"By their creation, voting strength of African Americans within these cities has been diluted beyond the maximum Constitutional level and grossly in excess of the more restrictive provisions of the VRA. This has effectively taken the right to vote away from these African Americans," the caucus said in a Web site devoted to this case, Action in Justice for Georgia.
"The state committed these violations by creating super-majority white neighborhoods and communities within previously existing local government bodies (counties), in which, African-Americans have historically maintained dominant political control," the group's release said.
We have a growing minority population in Sandy Springs which we’re very pleased with. People find it a good place to live, which it is,” Willard said.
Year 2010 Census data showed Sandy Springs' population as 66.7 percent white; 19.9 percent black and 11.9 percent Hispanic The city's overall population jumped by nearly 8,000 since 2000 to 93,853.
Data shows that in 2009, Fulton County’s population was 50.6 percent white and 43.1 percent black.
Race vs. Self-governance
Co-Counsel Rodney Strong said the suit is based on the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“We think it’s a pretty classic voting rights claim,” he said.
However, Jim Paine, a member of the Milton County Initiatives Committee, said the U.S. Justice Department pre-cleared all of these cities before charters were adopted. The committee was set up at the request of state legislators in North Fulton to act as an advisory committee to interact between citizens and the lawmakers.
Paine believes the real issue is that North Fulton County residents want self-governance.
"[Residents are] tired of dysfunctional county government, tired of lawsuits, cheating scandals within the county government and want to form their own local county government, that's what they are trying to block," he said. "I think I'm astounded at the fact that these people are about five or six years too late on this."
Strong said the act requires many southern states to submit any changes in voting guidelines to the U.S. Department of Justice prior to making decision on such change.
The changes were pre-cleared in each case, but Strong said it has been documented that under the Bush administration many clearances regarding voting rights were made by political appointees rather than people who’ve spent their careers with that branch.
“I would add that there were a number of allegations regarding undue political influence over the supposedly independent decisions about voting rights,” he said. “I think it makes sense that we bring this suit and we look into the decisions that were made.”
Also key to the suit, he said, is the bypassing of including Fulton County and DeKalb County officials when creating these cities.
The suit said that local residents in the municipal areas were able to vote on a decision to incorporate, but not the residents in the county.
North Fulton and South Fulton leaders hotly debated the Sandy Springs Referendum Campaign before local residents voted the city into incorporation in 2005.
Strong said that Georgia has a tradition of having subcommittees from areas affected by such changes vote on the issue before it is sent to the legislature. For example, when Dunwoody was proposed, it was not brought to a delegation of DeKalb County legislators, but rather went directly to the full legislature.
“In this particular case, they bypassed the local delegation,” he said. “The reason they bypassed the local delegation, which was majority African American, was that they would not have approved the creation of these new municipalities.”
Strong said he and others have been working on this case for more than a year.
Paine referred to a quote in the Black Legislative Caucus news release which describes what people in North Fulton are doing: "The right to vote is the right to control everything from taxes to government services."
He said, "That sentence right there is exactly what we in North Fulton County are looking for. It's the ability to govern our own local area and we're looking for no more and no less than that. That's all we are asking to do, control our own destiny and government services."
The move for a Milton County won't happen this year in the legislature but the proposal is not goig away, Paine added.
"In fact it's gaining in strength and momentum as more and more cases of problems with Fulton County are uncovered, month after month, week after week," Paine said. "The movement is there and will be continuing next year in the state legislature."