N. Fulton looks to shuffle districts

Democrats call Republican plan inherently unfair.

By David Wickert

Staff writer Johnny Edwards contributed to this report.

North Fulton Republicans have proposed a plan to redraw political boundaries that could challenge Democratic dominance of the County Commission.

The plan introduced Thursday would place Democratic Commissioners Emma Darnell and Bill Edwards in the same district. It also would displace Democrat Robb Pitts, whose countywide at-large district would be converted into a new district in North Fulton.

The proposal still must clear the General Assembly. Because of Georgia’s history of racial discrimination, it also must pass muster with the U.S. Justice Department. It’s unclear how long a review could take.

Edwards accused Republicans of trying to dilute the votes of black residents and

said he’s considering a challenge under the federal Voting Rights Act.

“For them to come in with their evil ways and just spit on this community like this, it’s something that you just can’t take,” said Edwards, who is black.

State Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, who is white and who introduced the redistricting plan along with other North Fulton Republicans, denied any racist intent in an interview Friday. She declined to comment on why the boundaries pit Democratic incumbents against each other.

Democrats on the commission say they had no input into the plan.

Riley said the reshuffled districts comply with federal law and address the tremendous population growth in Fulton County over the last decade.

“The resulting map is fair, complies with constitutional and federal mandates, respects precinct boundaries and communities of interest and consists of compact districts,” Riley said in a statement announcing the plan.

Governments redraw political districts every 10 years to ensure they are roughly equivalent in population. That is meant to ensure voters are equally represented by elected officials, guaranteeing the principle of “one person, one vote.”

In practice, redistricting is often a messy political process. Ten years ago a federal judge drew the current commission boundaries after state and local officials couldn’t agree on a plan to do it themselves.

The proposed County Commission districts are just one salvo in a fusillade this week by North Fulton Republican lawmakers who want to reshape county government. They say it’s inefficient and unresponsive to their frustrated constituents.

House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, introduced a bill that would double the county’s homestead exemption to $60,000 – a move that would cut property taxes for more than 100,000 residents but would cost the county $40 million to $50 million in revenue annually.

Rep. Chuck Martin, RAlpharetta, introduced a measure that would prevent all newly hired county employees from appealing to a personnel board if they are fired, demoted or suspended. Supporters say the move would make it easier to fire bad employees or move them where they’re needed; opponents say it will lead to nepotism and favoritism in county hiring.

The proposed new districts could shake up the County Commission, where Democrats enjoy a 5-2 advantage over Republicans. Under the redistricting plan, Darnell, an Atlanta resident, would be shuffled into the same district as Edwards, who represents South Fulton.

The plan also would split North Fulton into two districts, eliminating Pitts’ at-large seat in the process. Pitts is considering a challenge to Commission Chairman John Eaves, a fellow Democrat, next year. Depending on who seeks re-election, that could pit two sets of incumbent Democrats against each other.

The plan appears to create three Republican-leaning districts on the seven-member commission. Since Republicans have also won the at-large chairman’s post in the past, it would give them the potential to seize a majority.

Diane DeVore, a member of the North Fulton and Friends Tea Party, welcomed the plan. She said North Fulton’s needs are often neglected because most of it is represented by a single commissioner, Republican Liz Hausmann.

“That’s not fair and balanced,” DeVore said. “When it comes down to a lot of things, our voice is not heard.”

Hausmann also favors scrapping the at-large seat in favor of the new North Fulton seat.

“While I’ve enjoyed representing most of North Fulton, I do agree that we’re under-represented,” she said. “One man, one vote is very important.”

Democrats on the commission see the plan differently.

Eaves said, “There is something inherently wrong about putting two existing commissioners together in the same district who have been duly elected by their respective districts and have fought very hard on behalf of their constituents.”

Darnell and Pitts could not be reached for comment.

The move highlights long-standing tension between the northern and southern parts of Fulton County. Those tensions often play out on the County Commission.

Last spring Hausmann distributed a letter asking Darnell to stop insulting her and her district in public meetings. And Riley, while serving on the County Commission, once faced an ethics complaint because she chaired an advisory board that wanted to recreate Milton County from the suburbs north of Atlanta. Six Democratic state lawmakers claimed she had violated her oath of office to protect the interests of Fulton County, and Edwards at the time likened it to “having a terrorist in Congress.”

“None of that’s relevant to this discussion,” Riley said.

Riley’s plan also would change the election schedule for commission seats. Currently they’re all up for election every four years. Under Riley’s bill, three districts and the chairman’s spot would be up for four-year terms, as usual, in 2014. But Districts 2, 4 and 6 would be up for only two-year terms next year, with election for four-year terms beginning in 2016.

Riley said staggering the elections would prevent the commission from losing all of its institutional memory at once in the unlikely event that voters swept out all incumbents.