Democrats rebuke GOP legislator’s push to change Gwinnett government

Rep. Sam Park, a Democrat who chairs the Gwinnett Delegation, speaks out against two bills introduced by state Sen. Clint Dixon (R-Gwinnett) that would dramatically change the structure of local government. (Tyler Wilkins /

Credit: Tyler Wilkins

Credit: Tyler Wilkins

Rep. Sam Park, a Democrat who chairs the Gwinnett Delegation, speaks out against two bills introduced by state Sen. Clint Dixon (R-Gwinnett) that would dramatically change the structure of local government. (Tyler Wilkins /

An “undemocratic power grab” by a handful of GOP legislators to dramatically change two Gwinnett government boards would erase the will of voters, said state Rep. Jasmine Clark and other Democrats on Wednesday.

Clark was among several county and state leaders drawn to the Capitol to speak against legislation introduced this week during the Legislature’s special session by state Sen. Clint Dixon (R-Gwinnett) that would nearly double the number of seats on the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners.

The two bills would also strip the commission chairperson of voting powers except to break ties and make members of the Gwinnett County Board of Education run in nonpartisan elections.

Dixon blindsided his Democratic colleagues and the members of the boards that would be affected. He brought the legislation forward without discussing the proposed changes with county commissioners, school board members or Gwinnett lawmakers.

“I am disgusted by this hyper-partisan power grab and will do everything in my power, along with my colleagues, to stop it,” said state Rep. Sam Park, a Democrat who chairs the Gwinnett Delegation, during a Wednesday press conference.

Gwinnett voters would elect one chairperson and nine county commissioners under the legislation. Currently, the county has four commissioners. Election districts for the five-member school board would change.

The education bill passed out of the State and Local Governmental Operations Committee on Wednesday afternoon 4-3, despite the demands of Democratic legislators to have more time to discuss it.

Some committee members said state Sen. Lee Anderson, chair of the committee and cosponsor of the bills, violated procedure by skipping over a motion to table the bill and voting on an earlier motion to pass it.

“I’m the chairman, and this is the way it’s going to be,” said Anderson, R-Grovetown.

The bill affecting the county commission will be taken up Thursday. State Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, protested against maps of the new commission and education districts not being included in the bills.

Board of Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson and Commissioner Kirkland Carden intended to testify against the bill, but the meeting adjourned before they could address the committee.

For the first time in nearly three decades, Democrats took control of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners in 2020. The most diverse county in the state is now represented by all people of color on the board, including Hendrickson, who made history as Gwinnett’s first Black chairwoman.

“Black people running the Board of Education and Board of Commissioners does not constitute an emergency just because certain people don’t like it,” said Clark, D-Lilburn.

Hendrickson said in a Tuesday statement that the bill would adversely affect Gwinnett residents by interrupting government operations. State Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Grayson, said the cost of adding more commission seats would fall on the backs of taxpayers.

“This is an approach taken by a small group of legislators in a backroom for a county of (nearly) 1 million people,” said Carden on Tuesday.

Dixon told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday that the move would give Gwinnett residents better representation by allowing members to drill down on more local issues.

“We’ve got four county commissioners currently that represent right at 239,000 people each,” Dixon said Tuesday. “If you compare that to some of the surrounding counties, it’s one of the smallest commission boards based off our population.”

Hendrickson disagrees. She said Gwinnett County successfully functions under its current format — which is similar to nearby Fulton and Cobb counties — even as the county continues to expand and grow.

Dixon said that the change to the Board of Education would stop partisanship from influencing the education of children. He said he’s unhappy with the board’s direction.

Dixon said he wants to prevent critical race theory – an academic concept based on the idea that racism is embedded in all aspects of life, including in legal systems and policies – from being taught in Gwinnett’s schools.

“The education of our children should be a nonpartisan issue,” said Dixon during the Wednesday committee meeting. “The school board members should be prioritized on education of Gwinnett kids over political party.”

Everton Blair, chair of the board, said none of the members knew anything about the “sneaky bills” until Dixon introduced them. He said the bills go against the state Legislature’s approach to let local government set their own rules.

“It’s honestly just really tacky, and it’s bad practice,” Blair said.

Anderson, the bills’ cosponsor, represents a majority Republican district that runs from Columbia County up to Hart County, far from Gwinnett. Three of the counties within his district have school boards that run in partisan elections.

State Reps. Timothy Barr, Chuck Efstration, Tom Kirby and Bonnie Rich, all Republicans whose districts include parts of Gwinnett, issued a joint statement on Tuesday supporting the bills. They agreed with Dixon that reducing districts to about 100,000 residents each would give communities better representation.

State Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, tried to expand the Board of Commissioners in 2017 by adding two new commission seats. Republicans held the board at the time.

Marin, at the time, proposed similar benefits as Dixon – that divvying up the county’s large population into smaller commission districts would lead to better governance – but his legislation failed to pass.

Marin said Democrats invited Republican legislators and county officials in 2017 to collaborate on adding more seats to the Board of Commissioners. They also allowed for public input and pushed for it during a normal legislative session, he said.

Local legislation is only intended to come forward during the special session if it is necessary to avoid unreasonable hardship or avoid undue impairment of public functions, according to a proclamation from Gov. Brian Kemp.

Board of Education elections would be held May next year instead of November if the bill becomes law, which Dixon said made it an urgent matter to be discussed during the special session. Voter turnout tends to be lower in local races if they do not coincide with general elections for federal or state offices.

“I certainly hope that my Republican colleagues do not believe that it is of the utmost urgency to dilute the power of newly elected people of color in Gwinnett County,” Park said. “... Stop this nonsense. Enough is enough.”