Justices appear skeptical of DeKalb County pay raise vote

University of Georgia law student John Lex Kenerly present a case challenging the DeKalb County commission’s surprise pay raise during a Georgia Supreme Court session on Oct. 22, 2019. TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM

University of Georgia law student John Lex Kenerly present a case challenging the DeKalb County commission’s surprise pay raise during a Georgia Supreme Court session on Oct. 22, 2019. TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM

DeKalb County commissioners' surprise vote raising their salaries by 60 percent has been challenged all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court, which heard arguments Tuesday. And it sounded like the challenger could win.

Justices questioned many of the arguments made by the county’s attorneys defending the pay raise vote, leading the DeKalb resident and activist behind the lawsuit to be optimistic.

“If you don’t give up and keep pushing forward, justice will eventually find you,” Ed Williams said.

Williams sued commissioners after neither the state attorney general nor the DeKalb solicitor general took action to rescind the raises, although both had criticized the commission's action. The pay hikes were approved without debate or discussion during a meeting in February 2018, although the item was not printed on the agenda in advance. Commissioners had purchased legal ads in a weekly newspaper indicating a vote on their compensation was planned but there were no details.

A Superior Court judge in January ruled against Williams, saying he didn't have legal standing to challenge the pay-raise vote, the vote was legal and even if it weren't commissioners could not be sued for actions taken as part of their official duties.

Williams had been his own attorney during the lower court hearing, but a University of Georgia School of Law professor, Thomas Burch, and students Addison Smith and John Lex Kenerly agreed to take his case to the Supreme Court as part of the school’s Appellate Litigation Clinic.

WATCH | The Georgia Supreme Court has posted video on its website of Tuesday's hearing on the DeKalb pay raise vote challenge

Kenerly, a third-year law student from Jesup, took the lead Tuesday. He pointed to provisions in the Georgia Constitution and case law while arguing that the pay raise voted amounted to a violation of Georgia’s Open Meetings Act and the state constitution He said Williams, a DeKalb resident and taxpayer, had a right to sue in hopes of getting the courts to intervene.

“If it’s an expected item, they’re required to place it on the public meting agenda in advance,” Kenerly said.

Afterward, the 27-year-old former accountant said he was grateful for the chance to present a case before the Supreme Court as a "Law Dawg."

“When I decided to go to law school, I never imagined I would have an opportunity like the one I had today,” he said. “I will remember today for the rest of my life.”

DeKalb resident Ed Williams is congratulated by supporters after the Georgia Supreme Court held a hearing on his challenge of the DeKalb County commission's surprise pay raise. The hearing was held on Oct. 22, 2019. (TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM)

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Assistant DeKalb County Attorney Bennett Bryan asked justices to uphold Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Adams' decision to dismiss Williams' case. But justices appeared skeptical of his argument that Williams' was not eligible to challenge the pay raises and that board members choosing not to put the salary issue on the agenda was not a willful violation of open-meeting laws.

Several times as Bryan attempted to make his case justices cut him off to poke holes in his argument or ask a question. For example, when Bryan asserted that Williams had no standing to file his lawsuit, justices asked him what remedies Georgia residents have if they believe a government body has violated the state constitution.

“How can you ever challenge something like this?” Justice Sarah Warren asked.

“Again, your Honor, the Open Meetings Act provides an opportunity …” Bryan replied before another justice stepped in.

“If there is not not the Open Meetings Act, how do you challenge the substantive issue? The constitutional issue?” Justice David Nahmias asked.

Justices have several months to decide on the case. If the Supreme Court sides with Williams on some of the points he raised, it could be returned to DeKalb Superior Court for a rehearing.

Related | Judge throws out lawsuit challenging DeKalb commissioners’ pay hike

Also | DeKalb commissioners quietly approved 60 percent raises for themselves