Setzler's home rule redistricting bill clears Senate committee
Feb. 27—ATLANTA — A bill that would explicitly prohibit Georgia counties from drawing their own district lines passed the state Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee along party lines Monday.
Senate Bill 124, sponsored by Sen. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, takes aim at Cobb County's effort to redistrict itself via its purported home rule powers.
"Let's clarify in law, let's make it crystal clear. ... Counties do not have the power to apportion themselves. Only the General Assembly through local act, or statewide act, can do that," Setzler told the committee.
The Democratic majority on the Cobb Board of Commissioners last October passed a pair of "home rule" resolutions amending a General Assembly-approved map, signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp, that draws Democratic Commissioner Jerica Richardson out of her district. The county's map, using one drawn by former state Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, would keep Richardson in her seat.
Republican opponents of the county's home-rule resolution, including Attorney General Chris Carr, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Cobb's two Republican commissioners, have argued the effort is unconstitutional.
In tandem with the bill that cleared committee Monday, Setzler has also filed SB 236, which would reimpose the map signed into law by Kemp. That bill was not considered at Monday's hearing, and is scheduled to be heard Tuesday afternoon.
East Cobb activist Larry Savage and Republican Cobb Commissioner Keli Gambrill, meanwhile, sued the county in Cobb Superior Court late last week, challenging the legality of the home rule gambit. That came after Savage filed, then withdrew, an earlier suit.
Setzler was asked by the committee about ongoing litigation. He initially said there "is no current litigation," before saying "there may be litigation that I'm not aware of."
The bill was passed by five Republicans on the committee — Sens. Randy Robertson, Blake Tillery, Bo Hatchett, Jason Anavitarte and Shelly Echols. Cobb's state Sen. Michael "Doc" Rhett, D-Marietta, voted against it, and was joined by fellow Democrats Tonya Anderson, Harold Jones II and Gloria Butler.
"The purpose of my motion is because SB 124 clarifies what the Constitution of Georgia says ... If there's confusion, then I think we clarify that confusion by doing this," said Sen. Robertson, a Cataula Republican.
SB 124 has the backing of fellow Cobb state Sens. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-east Cobb, and John Albers, R-Roswell.
At the hearing, Rhett asked, "Isn't it already codified in law?"
Setzler responded that his bill would "clarify, without any discussion," that counties do not have the power to ignore the legislature's maps.
Anderson, a Lithonia Democrat, asked Setzler if the issue should not be a local one, handled by the Cobb Legislative Delegation. Setzler said the issue was relevant to all 159 counties.
Rhett also addressed the elephant in the room — what happens to Richardson, should Kemp's map stand?
Legislative council Stuart Morelli said state law states that if a person represents a district which they no longer reside in, a vacancy is created.
But, Morelli noted, "when we're dealing with county commission seats, unfortunately, there's just not a lot of great case law to interpret how this would happen."
Morelli said the closest analogy he could find was a case from 1994, when the then-mayor of Villa Rica, Georgia, was ousted from office when his home was de-annexed from the city. The state Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the de-annexation resulted in him losing the office.
Sen. Tillery, a Vidalia Republican, floated the idea of an amendment to the bill that would keep Richardson in office through the end of her term. Once the bill reaches the Senate floor, he hinted that he might draft such an amendment.
"The desire is not to draw someone out ... the issue is whether or not the constitution of Georgia says who draws the county maps, when a county is clearly a subdelegate, a subunit, of the state government," Tillery said.
After the hearing, Setzler didn't endorse that idea, however.
"We need to understand that statewide. And we need to understand if we're making a statewide decision for one person," he told the MDJ.
Monday's hearing was brief, but Echols, the chair, allowed two citizens to speak.
East Cobb resident Bryant McDaniel said the Republican map was in effect nullifying the election that put Richardson in office.
Ken Lawler is the chair of Fair Districts GA, a self-described nonpartisan organization which "works to encourage a fair and transparent redistricting process." Lawler said his group supports maps being drawn at the local level.
The Republican map was advanced last year without the approval of the county's local delegation, where Democrats make up a narrow majority. Critics, such as Allen, who now chairs the Cobb Democratic Party, said at the time the lack of consensus was a break with tradition.
"Whatever the law is, today, the process worked for 150-some counties, their bills were passed under local consent, legislature handled it, there were no issues, right?" Lawler said. "Four counties got changed. Why? For partisan political purposes."
Setzler has said the map adopted by the legislature last year would preserve the present 3-2 split on the board, with two Democratic and two Republican seats. The chair's seat is currently held by Democrat Lisa Cupid.
Later Monday morning, For Which It Stance, a group formed by Richardson and activists supporting her, held a press conference near the Capitol. Richardson ally Mindy Seger said the question of constitutionality is "best answered by the courts."
Allen said at the presser that Setzler is on "a sugar high of power." The GOP map, he argued, will set a precedent where lawmakers under the Gold Dome can remove any county commissioner or school board member from office in the middle of their term.
"We have to preserve local control in this state," Allen said. "And it cannot be, 'We believe in local control, until we need to control the locals.' That is the process we have now."
Setzler argues Richardson shouldn't have bought a new home at the edge of her district shortly before the redistricting cycle.
"She had 304 days to live in the district that she was going to represent. And she chose not to," he told the MDJ.