CORRECTION: Butler did not say she would veto the council’s vote on redistricting. We regret the error.
Forest Park Mayor Angelyne Butler asked the City Council Monday night to reconsider its 3-2 rejection at last week’s special called meeting of mandatory redistricting of the city’s wards. The city needs to rebalance its ward populations so that citizens’ votes will not be diluted. Ward 4 has significantly fewer voters than other wards in the city.
Every ten years, governments use U.S. Census figures to make sure that districts are drawn fairly. Figures for the 2020 Census came out in 2021 but the city took no action to update those lines. City Manager Ricky Clark brought the problem to the attention of the State Reapportionment Office, which offered the city a working draft of a new ward map. But the council voted not to redraw the lines before the November election, saying there wasn’t time to notify residents of any changes.
“We all know that the timing is horrible,” Butler said, “but to know and to still not do anything is a disturbance to our positions as elected officials.”
Wards 3, 4, and 5 would be affected, but everyone in the city would be notified of the changes, Butler said.
Ward 4 Councilwoman Latresa Akins-Wells said not taking action leaves the city open to a lawsuit, adding that “it just don’t look right.” Akins-Wells said she is affected by the delay. The State Reapportionment Office found that, based on 2020 Census figures, Ward 4 is off by more than four percent. The deviation is +/- 7%, which means one ward—Ward 4— has fewer voters than the others. Every ward needs to have about the same number of voters.
“After our special called meeting, I was in the mindset of the timing of it all,” Butler said. “And I think one thing that we all can agree on is that the timing is horrible. Absolutely horrible. But sans that, sans our emotions and our feelings, we do have an obligation that, when something is brought to our attention, that we do address it appropriately. And I do find that, while some of this is teetering on personnel matters and our city attorney, I gotta be very careful as to what I say, but I will say, that as our city attorney and as our directors, as Councilwoman James would say, who are our subject matter experts, they do have an obligation to bring things to us in a sufficient timeframe. So for us to be at this juncture speaks to the mediocrity which we have been receiving. And because we’re going to continue it in executive session, I will refrain from additional comments. But just know that if the city manager and the council is okay with mediocrity, then my words may be mute. But just know that I’m not. But in addition to that, at the bedmark of any democracy is our right to vote. And I do believe that it is our obligation to ensure that we are having our elections that are free and clear of any Constitutional ambiguity that may be before us. And so, when it comes down to the regular session, and it comes up again, I am really gonna ask Councilman James, Councilman Antoine, and Councilman Mears to really reconsider this act, because time is truly of the essence.”
City Attorney Mike Williams said that case law and the Georgia Municipal Association indicate that a ward can be off by up to 10%.
Clark said, “In order for us to get to the state reapportionment office, you have to be invited,” and that the legislative delegation had made that happen for the city.
“Every resident in this city will be notified,” Clark said, through mailers and the new citywide app coming out next month.
Watch the work session discussion:
Butler, who had worked for the Fulton County Registrations and Elections Office before becoming mayor, was adamant that no citizen be disenfranchised.
District 1 Councilwoman Kimberly James insisted she would not change her position, as did Ward 5 Councilman Allan Mears.
According to Ward 3 Councilman Héctor Gutierrez, the average number of voters per ward is 3,900, with a 7% deviation meaning 273 votes—on average—more or less per ward.
“So if everybody in those blocks would vote, that’s more votes than I got in my whole election,” Gutierrez said.
Forest Park has had extremely low voter turnout in the single digits for many years, and elections often come down to a handful of votes.
Gutierrez won his last election by 7 votes and Ward 2 Councilman Dabouze Antoine by 3, Butler pointed out.
Akins-Wells asked Williams to explain the city’s potential legal exposure. Williams said that, if a lawsuit were to be filed and a court found 7% was not defensible, “then you would have an order to change the lines.” However, he added that he “couldn’t speak to” whether the lines could be redrawn before the election should a court order it, and that the city could incur legal expenses by waiting until after the election.
The challenge would be based on the principle of one person, one vote.
Mears said he agreed the lines needed to be redrawn, but said that based on the number of eligible voters versus those who actually turned out, “it wouldn’t make a difference.” He reiterated that “we don’t need to hurry and do it right now, because this voting is not overwhelming.”