Cobb commissioner calls board "unconstitutional and illegal" but avoids a second showdown

Jan. 25—MARIETTA — The Cobb Board of Commissioners averted another procedural standoff Tuesday night as Republicans JoAnn Birrell and Keli Gambrill agreed to vote on county business.

The decision avoided a repeat of the board's meeting two weeks prior, when Chairwoman Lisa Cupid asked police to escort them from the dais after they attempted to abstain from voting on county business.

But the two commissioners participated only under protest, both remarking that while they intended to represent their constituents, they maintain the board is currently operating unconstitutionally. They reiterated that the county's effort to draw its own district lines under an untested assertion of "home rule" is in clear violation of Georgia law.

And it hardly lowered the pressure in the room before a packed and raucous audience, as no more than a few minutes at a time went by that weren't broken by cheers, jeers, and applause.

"I will not have my vote suppressed," said Birrell, who called the present board "unconstitutional and illegal."

The meeting, however, devolved shortly after the first vote, as Gambrill and Birrell called into question the accuracy of the minutes of the Jan. 10 meeting from which they were removed. More explosively, Gambrill went so far as to request a forensic audit of the county clerk's audio recording of those proceedings "to ensure that the integrity of our systems are in place."

Gambrill and Birrell both said that in spite of what was recorded, they did not vote to enter executive session during the Jan. 10 meeting (the vote appears in the minutes as passing 5-0). The minutes also did not reflect Cupid asking security to escort the commissioners from the dais after they continued to not vote.

(County staff played the clerk's audio for reporters after the meeting. Cupid can be heard calling for a vote to enter executive session, which is seconded, and Cupid announces the vote as passing 5-0. The incident was not captured on the live stream of the meeting.)

Gambrill's suggestions of malfeasance prompted sharp rebukes from her Democratic colleagues, particularly Cupid, who called it "just a display of pomp."

"Irrespective of what's recorded and what's found in a forensic audit, truth is still truth, and what the eyes saw cannot be unseen, and the truth that occurred cannot be undone," Cupid said.

'It invites anarchy'

How the meeting would proceed remained an open question until the first vote of the night came up — approval of the consent agenda.

Both Birrell and Gambrill read from prepared remarks, with the request that their comments be appended to the minutes for each agenda item they voted on.

Gambrill read off a lengthy list of reasons why the county's action is unlawful, including citing statements of the Georgia attorney general's office, the secretary of state's office, and a legislative attorney arguing as much.

"Just two weeks ago, I was unjustifiably removed from this dais and prevented from representing my constituents and carrying out the duties I was elected to perform based on an opinion that is not supported by law or policies of this board," Gambrill said. "Per Louis D. Brandeis, 'Our government teaches the people by its example. If the government becomes a law-breaker, it breeds contempt for law, invites every man to become a law unto himself. It invites anarchy.'"

Near the meeting's close, Birrell addressed the issue again, saying, "It's very unfortunate that Cobb County, who has always been the county that other jurisdictions looked up to and wanted to model after, is now in the news in a negative light.

"The home rule challenge by the majority of this board has increased tensions on the board, and in the community," Birrell added.

Supporters of the Republicans — bearing signs reading "Representation Not Dictatorship," and "Commissioners Not Comrades" — framed the matter as an issue of the rule of law.

"I don't like it one bit. I'm not going to stand for it anymore. As far as I'm concerned, this is as close to insurrection as I can possibly imagine," said west Cobb's John McLean.

But across the aisle, Democratic Commissioner Monique Sheffield said the notion of disenfranchisement cut both ways.

"While we're asked to be sympathetic to those that feel that they have been disenfranchised by the majority's board decision for home rule, there's no mention at all of the voters that have been disenfranchised with the map that drew Commissioner (Jerica) Richardson out of her district. It's just the big ball of paradox right now," Sheffield said, reminding the public that the issue at this point will be up to the courts to decide.

Public commenters sharing that view framed the home rule effort as fighting back against a reactionary push to remove a Black official from office.

Said William Parker, "I suggest that Republicans encourage the Georgia state legislature to stay in its lane, and let the people of Cobb County decide how they will be represented by using the old-fashioned tactic — voting — not by legislative fiat promulgated by some disgruntled old people who don't like change."

'Mind games'

The home rule issue aside, tensions were further inflamed over questioning of the records from the Jan. 10 meeting when the board voted to approve the minutes of that meeting.

The agenda item for the minutes was pulled from the consent agenda at Gambrill's request, in a move both Cupid and Birrell suggested was without precedent during their tenures.

The first issue surrounded the vote to enter executive session during the Jan. 10 meeting, which both Gambrill and Birrell insisted they did not vote on, and questions over whether the board was still in recess at the time. The exchange was not captured on the county's live stream of the meeting.

The second issue was that Cupid's request for security to escort the commissioners from the dais was likewise not reflected in the minutes (which was also not recorded in the video stream).

On the county's audio recording played for reporters after the meeting, Cupid can be heard saying, "We are holding up business of the county. We had an executive session to discuss this. I'm going to ask you to please — or have assistance from our officer to escort the commissioners off the dais."

Gambrill then asks Cupid several times to name which commissioners should leave.

"I'm not here to play mind games, commissioner. I think you know the answer to that question," Cupid says.

"And neither are we, chair," Gambrill shoots back.

During Tuesday's meeting, Gambrill said she had listened to the clerk's audio of the meeting.

"Interestingly enough, the quality of the recording changes at the time the vote to go into executive session supposedly occurred. When the board returned from executive session, the quality of the tape was poor and barely audible ... just as it was leading up to the first recess prior to the board leaving the room," she said, and later alleged to the MDJ there are time discrepancies in the recording that also don't add up.

Birrell did not raise the same suspicions about the audio, telling the MDJ after the meeting her qualms lay primarily with the accuracy of the minutes, and concerns around portions of the Jan. 10 meeting not being broadcast.

"For transparency's sake, to me, any vote taken if we're recording the meeting and televising the meeting should be recorded," Birrell said.

As to the forensic audit Gambrill requested, County Manger Jackie McMorris said she needed to speak with Gambrill further before determining how to proceed. Gambrill's comments, meanwhile, received a pointed response from Cupid.

"If anyone objects to the minutes, this is the appropriate time to do so. But to dress down our county clerk in such a fashion, I believe, is just completely disrespectful. It's unprofessional of people that have a responsibility to this county day in and day out," Cupid said.

Commissioners Richardson and Sheffield likewise defended the clerk's minutes as accurate reflections of the last meeting.

"Your integrity is not in question, regardless of what may transpire on this board and its discourse," Richardson told county clerk Pam Mabry.

Added Sheffield, "Words have consequences ... and as leaders of this county, we are responsible for our words. We are responsible for lowering the temperature in situations such as this. It is irresponsible for a leader to do otherwise."