Some seek agreement before Fayette voting dispute heads to court

With the prospects of a costly trial looming, pressure is growing in Fayette County over whether to end the protracted legal fight over how the county elects its officials.

Two prominent businessmen recently weighed in with an ad in a local paper asking county leaders to settle the lawsuit with the NAACP and embrace district voting.

Fayette county and the national civil rights group have so far each spent $1 million fighting over what’s the fairest way of electing county commissioners and school board members.

While some have had enough of the protracted fight, there are those still resolute about holding onto countywide voting.

Advocates of at-large voting say it gives them greater say in who is running the county and doesn’t limit them to one representative. They say district voting has led to gerrymandering and in some instances winds up hurting the people it’s intended to help. They want the county to go to trial, which is scheduled for mid-November

Advocates of district voting say the two recent court-ordered district elections that put two black candidates in county office underscore the need for district voting.

Until now, the fight has been seen mostly as a political and legal test of wills.

But some business leaders fear it could hurt Fayette’s image and business climate.

“It is now time to bring to an end this divisive and expensive issue,” Jim Pace and Joel Cowan said in their ad, “Letter to Our County Leaders: From Members of The Business Community.” The ad also noted that 14 of the 15 counties surrounding Fayette have district voting and in Georgia, 125 of 159 counties elect some or all of their commissioners using districts.

Pace is a developer who was instrumental in bringing British filmmaking giant Pinewood Studios to Fayette.

Cowan is considered the father of Peachtree City and has a county highway named after him.

Georgia Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Chris Clark said prolonged or controversial political issues can seriously affect a community.

“Anytime you have something like this that generates a negative image of the community, it makes it hard for economic development and job creation,” said Clark, who lives in Peachtree City. “So I do believe it’s incumbent upon the business community to call for a quick resolution.”

Clark praised the Fayette business community for pushing for a solution.

“I applaud Jim and Joel… They know first-hand what it’s doing to economic development and what it could do to the incredible positive growth we’re seeing there now.”

Cowan and Pace say they have have seen the voting rights dispute carve a political and racial wedge in the county of 110,000. For Pace, the catalyst was the July 3 death of Pota Coston, the first black candidate to be elected to the county commission, whose election came via court-ordered district voting. She died after only six months in office. Charles Rousseau was elected last month to fill Coston’s District 5 seat.

Shortly after Coston’s death, a group of business leaders met at the local chamber to discuss the voting dispute and figure out a solution.

“Pota’s death kind of crystalized it for me,” said Pace, co-founder of Group VI, a real estate construction development firm in Peachtree City. “Joel and I have been friends for many years. We both felt time is running out for us to resolve it amicably. We’re strongly urging both parties to come together and resolve it without the court. We don’t need this negative painting us with the wrong brush.”

Cowan, now an adjunct professor at Georgia Tech, said the suit has “cost a lot of money already and caused some racial tension. We believe it’s time to withdraw.”

The business community appeal comes amid rumors a settlement between the county and the NAACP is being inked in secret. But commission chairman Charles Oddo, NAACP attorney Leah Aden and local NAACP president John E. Jones said a settlement is not imminent.

“There’s been a lot of talk within the community and business community to try to convince all of our leaders to settle. But I know of no actual talks to settle at this point,” said school board member Leonard Presberg who has been outspoken in his efforts to get the school board to end the lawsuit and accept district voting. “As an organzation, we’re preparing for the trial coming up.”

The dispute began four years ago when the NAACP and a group of black residents sued the county commission, school board and board of elections saying at-large voting kept blacks from getting elected to county office. A federal judge ruled in favor of district voting which led to Coston’s election last November. The county appealed and the appellate court sent the case back to the judge to hear evidence from both sides on the issue. After Coston’s death the county and NAACP argued over which voting system should be used to elect her replacement. The judge ordered district voting.

A trial is set for the week of Nov. 16 and could put the issue to rest.

If anything, the issue is far from being settled. Last week’s commission meeting drew a packed audience of residents divided on the issue.

“The NAACP has bullied the citizens of Fayette County don’t give up the fight,” Donald Fowler of Fayetteville said.

“It’s not about bullying. It’s called doing the right thing for all. It’s about moving forward,” Tyrone resident Derrick Jackson countered. “You’re fighting against a tidal wave when you’re in a canoe.”

Rick Halbert just wants the issue to end.

“This is getting embarassing for the county,” said the Fayetteville resident who is in favor of district voting. “It’s not right. It’s not a political thing. It’s not a white or black thing. If it goes to the legal (system) it’s going to be a black eye for the county.”

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