A fractious political chapter in Fayette County came to an exhaustive end late Thursday night.
County commissioners followed on the heels of the school board’s decision earlier this week to accept a settlement to end a 2011 lawsuit with the NAACP and a group of black residents who said the county’s at-large voting system kept blacks from getting elected to top county posts.
County leaders fought hard during the last four and a half years to preserve the nearly 200-year-old at-large system but in the end grudgingly gave into a plan that calls for creating four districts and one at-large seat. It is a compromise from the map the county uses now which has five districts.
The agreement, hammered out during two months of court-ordered mediation, must now get the blessing of the Georgia General Assembly. The county has until Jan. 25 to notify the Georgia General Assembly redraw the map created in the settlement.
“It’s been an ardous process. Boy has it turned out miserable,” said Commissioner Steve Brown who voted against the settlement. “The mediation process was more like a sledgehammer than a thoughtful process.”
The commission voted 3-2 to accept the settlement, ending the protracted battle which cost each side more than $1 million. Under the settlement, the county will pay NAACP attorneys $125,000, a fraction of their fees. In exchange, following the enactment of the plan by Georgia lawmakers, the NAACP and other plaintiffs will “acknowledge that there was no intentional racial discrimination in the county use of and defense of its at-large districting system,” the resolution said.
The decision came just before midnight after a lengthy board meeting that surprisingly had only one resident broach the issue during public comment.
“I really believed it was in the best interest of our county to come to a settlement,” Commissioner David Barlow said. “If we would have continue to pursue this lawsuit and lost, our taxpayers lose. I am pleased that this lawsuit has been settled.”
“This is the right time to end this and move forward,” said Commissioner Charles Rousseau, a black resident who was elected to the board last September under district voting. While some of his peers questioned the validity of the NAACP challenge, Rousseau said it was necessary. He cited several historical legal landmark - the 1965 Voting Rights Act, 1896 Plessy vs Ferguson for example - that helped move the nation forward at critical junctures.
“The fact is these court-rulings would not have been put in place if they had not been addressed.”
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