Bill aims to add more commissioners — and diversity — to Gwinnett board

January 17, 2017, Atlanta - The array of names on the front of the round desk in the Gwinnett County Justice Department’s auditorium in Atlanta, Georgia, on Tuesday, January 17, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

January 17, 2017, Atlanta - The array of names on the front of the round desk in the Gwinnett County Justice Department’s auditorium in Atlanta, Georgia, on Tuesday, January 17, 2017. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM)

A piece of legislation filed this week would add more seats to Gwinnett County’s Board of Commissioners — and potentially pave the way for more diversity on a body that’s never had a non-white member.

The bill filed Thursday by State Rep. Pedro Marin, a Democrat from Duluth, would add create two new positions on Gwinnett’s highest governing body, reworking the four existing districts to make room. Add in the chairman, who’s elected at large, and the board would ultimately go from five members to seven.

“It’s not that I believe in big government,” Marin said. “But I believe in good representation. Better representation.”

And in Marin's mind — and those of several of his statehouse counterparts — the road to such representation is two-fold. Marin said only having four districts in a county of more than 900,000 residents has left commissioners to serve huge swaths of voters. His constituents also feel like the commission "doesn't really represent a minority-majority county."

In a still-diversifying county that voted for Hillary Clinton in November’s presidential election, the re-worked districts likely would give minority candidates a better shot at breaking the board’s color barrier.

Expanding Gwinnett's Board of Commissioners has been proposed before. But the current make-up of the county — and the controversy that has arisen from current Commissioner Tommy Hunter's polarizing remarks about U.S. Rep. John Lewis — add intrigue to Marin's quest.

His bill, however, has a long way to go — and not everyone’s sold.

‘The flip side’

To be voted on by the larger House of Representatives, 10 of the 18 members of Gwinnett’s delegation would have to sign off on Marin’s bill. Most, if not all, of the county’s seven Democratic representatives are believed to be on board.

“It’s something we, as a delegation, talked about before session and, at the time, seemed to have bipartisan support,” said Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, a Democrat from Lithonia whose district covers part of southern Gwinnett. “I hope that’s still the case.”

While it’s not strictly a partisan issue, Republicans might be a harder sell.

Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville, said he's in favor of having public hearings on the issue but added that he hadn't "heard anything for or against this from any of my constituents."

“You can make an argument that more commissioners would give you better representation,” Brockway said. “But the flip side of that is, it’s really up to the commissioner. You could have a commissioner that represents a small number of people but never interacts with them. Or you could have a commissioner that represents a large number of people and interacts very well.”

Attempts to contact other Republicans representatives on Friday were not successful.

To be clear, Marin has no delusions of the bill being rammed through in the few remaining days of the General Assembly’s current session. He wants to have public hearings and “listen to what the people want.” But as currently written, Marin’s bill calls for both new commissioners to be elected in November 2018.

Some residents have complained about the lack of diversity on the board, especially after a facebook post by Hunter in which he described Lewis, a civil rights icon, as a “racist pig.”

In a lengthy statement sent to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday morning, Gwinnett Board of Commissioners Chairman Charlotte Nash did not say if she thought more commissioners is a good idea. But she thinks the proposed timeframe is misguided.

Nash pointed to the 10-year census that will be conducted in 2020, and the subsequent tweaks to the commission’s districts that will follow in 2021.

“Revising boundaries in 2018 to add the two districts, and then facing the need to change district boundaries again in 2021 would create major challenges for County Election officials, disruption and confusion for voters and unnecessary risk for the operations of election process,” Nash wrote.

Members of the Board of Commissioners are scheduled to meet with their legislators on Tuesday.

‘Grow with the times’

A possible expansion of Gwinnett County’s Board of Commissioners is not a new idea.

In 2007, then-State Rep. Hugh Floyd, D-Norcross, proposed adding two “superdistrict” seats to the commission. But the proposal floundered.

In 2012, a group called Citizens for a Better Gwinnett launched its own fruitless effort to reorganize the board. That was inspired by the recommendations of a special grand jury empaneled to investigate corruption within the Board of Commissioners.

At the end of the investigation — which ultimately resulted in the resignation of three commissioners — the grand jury suggested either making commissioner’s jobs full-time or expanding the board to seven members would help prevent future corruption.

State Rep. Dewey McClain, D-Lawrenceville, believes Marin's bill is different from all of those efforts and "well on the way" to success. He called the way Gwinnett's highest governing body is constructed "antiquated."

“We need to make sure we can grow with the times,” he said.