Cobb Board devolves into political chaos over electoral map

One resident calls for compromise while one state lawmaker is ‘fanning the flames’
Chairwoman Lisa Cupid is seen at a Cobb County Board of Commissioners meeting in Marietta on Tuesday, September 27, 2022.   (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Chairwoman Lisa Cupid is seen at a Cobb County Board of Commissioners meeting in Marietta on Tuesday, September 27, 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

A relatively quiet meeting of the Cobb County Commission suddenly spiraled into one of the most chaotic meetings in the board’s long history— and the conflict has only intensified as a county commissioner and state lawmaker have laced their rhetorical attack against Chairwoman Lisa Cupid with race.

Republican Commissioners Keli Gambrill and JoAnn Birrell protested the county’s electoral map and questioned the legitimacy of the commission’s makeup at the Jan. 10 meeting, after the board’s Democratic majority took an unprecedented and widely disputed move to amend the map passed by the state Legislature that drew Democratic Commissioner Jerica Richardson out of her district with two years left on her term.

During the meeting, the two Republicans attempted to question the legality of the board’s makeup under the county-passed map. But Cupid wouldn’t allow it because it was not on the meeting agenda.

District One Commissioner Keli Gambrill is seen at a Cobb County Board of Commissioners meeting in Marietta on Tuesday, September 27, 2022.   (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Then, the two tried to abstain from voting on mundane county business — a resident’s request for a swimming pool certificate — and later refused to vote when they were told by the county attorney they could not abstain.

After giving Birrell and Gambrill repeated chances to vote on the item, Cupid insisted they step down from the dais and threatened to have them escorted out of the room by security if they refused.

Cupid stopped the meeting for about five minutes to “provide a courtesy” while the commissioners stepped down. Broadcast of the meeting also was halted during the recess, so five minutes is missing from the video stream while the commissioners continued to argue.

It was a level of dysfunction rarely seen at the Cobb County Commission. The conflict has resulted in backlash from state lawmakers, commissioners and residents alike.

In an inflammatory letter to the editor published by the Marietta Daily Journal, GOP state Rep. Ginny Ehrhart from Marietta said the board’s two Republicans — the only white commissioners on the board — are “the new Rosa Parks of the Cobb BOC.” She also condemned Cupid for asking them to leave.

“What we have on our hands, folks, is an activist chairwoman thumbing her nose at our Georgia Constitution and creating a threat to our democracy through her insurrectionist actions,” Ehrhart’s letter says. “You say you want to avoid a circus, Ms. Cupid? You ARE the circus.”

Former Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, and his wife Ginny, who replaced him in the Georgia House. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gambrill backed Ehrhart’s argument, said that Cupid “abused her position of power,” and then made other racially-charged comments.

“It’s like the chair is unwilling to evolve and realize that we’re not back in the time of Rosa Parks anymore and that we are all on equal footing,” Gambrill said. “Instead, it’s like she wants to only recognize persons of color as being superior.”

Birrell declined interview requests but supported Ehrhart’s letter in a response to written questions.

“One thing about Ginny is she calls it as she sees it and doesn’t mince words. One of the many reasons why I like her. She has a right to her opinion as does everyone,” Birrell said in a text.

District Three Commissioner JoAnn Birrell is seen at a Cobb County Board of Commissioners meeting in Marietta on Tuesday, September 27, 2022.   (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

When asked to respond to Gambrill’s comments and Ehrhart’s letter, Cupid said in a statement sent by a county spokesperson: “I would prefer to engage colleagues as professionals concerning matters of the board, which would be directly rather than through the media.”

Last week, Cupid told the AJC that she acted appropriately.

“I believe that I displayed professionalism, as well as our other two commissioners, in handling a very heated situation as best as we knew to do in that moment,” she said.

While the issue of the electoral map is of utmost importance to lawmakers and voters alike — some of whom do not know which commissioner is representing them — the conflict has escalated beyond reason, said Tom Cheek, a Cobb resident and outspoken advocate for government transparency and ethics. Cheek said the “one-up-manship” needs to end.

Tom Cheek, a Cobb resident who challenged county officials on the Braves stadium deal, is shown during a Cobb County Commission ethics board hearing in 2014. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)

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“It just seems that everybody’s just taken a step too far,” said Cheek, who lives in the disputed area of District 2 and 3. “Nobody looked good ... The Republican commissioners took their protests a bit too far, and Chairwoman Cupid seems to be playing the role of a sore winner.”

Richardson — who was drawn out of her district by state lawmakers halfway through her term, and then drawn back into her district by the county — did not address the situation publicly and declined to comment after the meeting. The county administration claims the commission can pass its own redistricting map under the state’s home rule statute.

“The person who is showing the most poise, the most professionalism, in all of this, seems to be Commissioner Richardson,” Cheek said. “She seems to be remaining calm and seems to be the voice of reason and says she’ll continue to show up and continue to represent her voters and wants to speak to the issues.”

A potential solution, Gambrill said, would be for Richardson to sit out of county meetings since her seat is the one in question. However, that would nullify the Democrats’ 3-2 advantage on the board until the dispute is resolved.

District Two Commissioner Jerica Richardson is seen at a Cobb County Board of Commissioners meeting in Marietta on Tuesday, September 27, 2022.   (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The constitutionality of the board’s move to amend its electoral map has yet to be determined in court. The county administration argues that the county’s map is legitimate until a judge rules otherwise.

Cobb resident Larry Savage said he plans to refile a lawsuit challenging the county’s map in a few weeks. The state attorney general’s office issued a statement last week saying the county’s map is “not legally binding,” and said it intends to engage in the lawsuit.

In the meantime, while Gambrill, Birrell and Cupid each expressed their desire for a speedy resolution, they are the only people who can make that happen for now, Cheek said.

“I’m a Republican voter in Cobb County, what I would like to say is: ‘Okay, we heard you, we saw you, but please get back to work representing the voters of Cobb County,’” Cheek said.

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