NOTE: This op-ed originally appeared in the Marietta Daily Journal online on Friday, January 27, and in the print edition on Friday, February 3, 2023 under a different headline.
It’s been a nearly a year since HB 1154, the legislation that redistricted Cobb County’s County Commission Districts, was introduced by Rep. John Carson on February 1, 2022. As soon as the legislation was introduced, it was quickly noted that one of the newly elected County Commissioners, Jerica Richardson, was no longer in the boundaries of her District 2 and would not be up for re-election until 2024.
Since then, confusion has reigned on what would happen to Commissioner Richardson as politicians and journalists have repeated as nearly Gospel truth that should HB 1154 remain law, that Cobb County would be down one Commissioner as Richardson, who before redistricting, moved to another residence in her district, would be out of office.
Mark Twain once quipped, “a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is getting its shoes on.”
Why I don’t know if the lie was intentional or created out of laziness, the fact remains, no matter which map remains in effect, Commissioner Richardson is the Commissioner for District 2 until at least the end of her term in 2025. How do I know?
Because I’ve actually read HB 1154.
HB 1154 says, “Those members of the Board of Commissioners of Cobb County who are serving as such on January 1, 2022, and any person selected to fill a vacancy in any such office shall continue to serve as such members until the regular expiration of their respective terms of office and upon the election and qualification of their respective successors.”
However, rather than reading that part of the legislation, it seems everyone ran to the Cobb County Code where they found the following (though well known) ordinance in Sec. 2-23, “A person elected or appointed as a member of the board from a commissioner district must continue to reside in that district during that person’s term of office or that office shall become vacant.”
“Ah ha!” they told us. “Richardson would be out of office as she’s no longer living in her district!”
This gave Republicans who see voter fraud behind every voting machine and Democrats who want to expand their newly gained political power in Cobb a cause célèbre for which to rally the partisan troops, beat their chests, and raise money to fight the good fight!
Kevin Foley, in his January 20, 2023, op-ed doubled down on the idea that Richardson would be drawn out of office writing, “Under the state Legislature’s map, which went into effect Jan. 1, Richardson would be unable to complete her four-year term to which she was lawfully elected in 2020 and presumably replaced by a Republican.”
Never mind the Republican map says Richardson, in fact, serves, “until the regular expiration of [her] respective term of office.” But we know never let a fact get in the way of “good” politics.
New political groups have even sprouted up out of nowhere to make sure Richardson stays in office and county commission meetings have been packed with both supporters and opponents of Richardson voicing their opinions. It’s now hard for anyone to believe the issue might be nothing more than a red herring and should have no bearing on which map the courts eventually will have to rule on.
All redistricting bills have those lines to make it clear that no one is drawn out of office if drawn out of the district. Guess what…the legislation which redistricted Cobb’s County Commission districts in 2012 said the same thing. Even HB 30EX2, which redistricted the County Commission in 2001, but was never passed because Cobb Democratic Senator Steve Thompson, Governor Roy Barnes’ floor leader, killed it in the Senate Committee, had the same language, “Those members of the Board of Commissioners of Cobb County who are serving as such on December 31, 2001, and any person selected to fill a vacancy in any such office shall continue to serve as such members until the regular expiration of their respective terms of office and upon the election and qualification of their respective successors.”
The federal courts would end up using HB 30EX2 to redraw Cobb’s Commission Districts.
You will find similar language in the bills redistricting the Public Service Commission, where 6-year terms could mean a commissioner living outside their district for four years.
This language is also in the bill redistricting the school board in our county and every other Georgia county.
Now we can see why there is no case law, it’s not because there has never an elected official drawn out of their district mid-term and forced out of office…it’s because everyone else was apparently able to read the plain and simple language of the law.
It would be even more simple if we were in Florida. Since 1988, County Commissioners in Florida have had an official opinion from their Attorney General to rely on. In AGO 88-11, the Florida Attorney General wrote, “Residency in the district which a county commissioner represents is required by law. This office, however, has previously stated that a change in the boundary line of commission districts or redistricting does not deprive a county commissioner of the right to hold office for the rest of his term, even though the commissioner’s residence may no longer be within the district which he represents. Thus, it appears clear that the redrawing of district lines cannot operate to deprive a commissioner of the office for which he or she was elected.”
If both Florida and Georgia require residency under the law, why would Florida’s interpretation provide for an exception for commissioners drawn out of their district and Georgia’s not, especially when Georgia law actually says, “Those members of the Board of Commissioners of Cobb County who are serving as such on January 1, 2022…shall continue to serve as such members until the regular expiration of their respective terms of office and upon the election and qualification of their respective successors.”
It seems Florida has said what has been always understood in Georgia; that an elected official must make an affirmative action to move, not a passive action to stay to lose their position before their term expires. So why has so much of the focus been around Richardson if the status of her term is a grey area at worse and most likely supports her serving a full four-year term at best?
The fact is it is hard to rally people around an idea, but easy to rally around a person. Take out the prospect of Richardson losing her office mid-term and would the Democrat majority on Board of Commissioners have nearly the support they have with public comments being dominated by those encouraging the majority to stand strong to support Richardson? Of course not!
To prove that point, you have look no further than the Cobb County Board of Education, which is being sued because of their maps as well. Without a person to rally around, the lawsuit which claims racial gerrymandering is barely in the public thought, which it’s hard to escape the drama at the County Commission.
Ironically, those who claim the law is murky on the County’s application of Home Rule and eagerly are seeking a judicial decision also seem to claim a bright-line rule as to Richardson’s fate should the legislature’s map prevail. For my opinions on Home Rule, you will have to wait until the next court hearing. As for Richardson’s fate as an elected official, let’s look to law, precedent, and the opinions of our neighbors with similar laws and all agree that, as HB 1154 states, her term will end January 1, 2025, and let the county commission get to more appropriate work for Cobb taxpayers. It’s time for us to toss that red herring back in the sea and move on with County business.