Almost three years ago, the people of Decatur passed a referendum changing the city's form of government. The city's delays in obtaining a decision on the validity of the referendum could backfire if a U.S. Supreme Court case results in the demise of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
There was much not to like about the referendum — we argued against it because it dropped the city from five council districts to three, diluting minority representation — but it was the will of the people. Instead of seeking expedited review from the U.S. Department of Justice, city officials have moved at glacial speed. Rather than obtain a final resolution from the Justice Department last year — one that likely would have concluded the referendum violated the Voting Rights Act — officials withdrew their petition.
Mayor Don Kyle wisely is honoring his campaign promise to seek a final determination, but the pace remains remarkably slow. No elected official likes the referendum because it not only disrupts existing districts, decreasing their chances of re-election, but it drops the mayor to part time and gives authority to a professional city manager.
While the Justice Department probably would have blocked the referendum if given a chance, it may soon lose its discretion to do so. On Wednesday, the court will hear arguments from Shelby County arguing the preclearance requirements of Section 5 are no longer good law.
If the court strikes Section 5, the city will have lost its only argument against implementing the 2010 referendum result. The people have not forgotten. Even those who voted against the change in government expect city officials to honor a referendum. Instead of making the referendum disappear, the city's procrastination may force it to comply with the will of the people.
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