A federal judge in Birmingham denied Decatur’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed against it by Gary Voketz for not implementing a council-manager form of government approved by city voters in a 2010 referendum.

U.S. District Judge Abdul K. Kallon, of the Northern District of Alabama, said in a ruling filed Thursday afternoon that Decatur “failed to present the court with any legal basis for failing to implement the results of the 2010 referendum.”

Kallon ruled the U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case involving Shelby County that struck down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 should be applied retroactively.

The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in the Shelby County case effectively eliminated the requirement that states and local governments get preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before changing their voting laws or practices.

Decatur contended the Shelby County case did not apply retroactively. The city’s position is that the preclearance requirement was still in effect when the referendum was held. The city’s motion to dismiss the case called the referendum a “dead letter,” since the Justice Department never approved the change to the council-manager form of government.

Between the 2010 referendum and the 2012 proposed implementation date, the city submitted then withdrew a council-manager government plan to the Justice Department for preclearance. The Justice Department never made a determination as to whether the plan complied with the Voting Rights Act.

Kallon wrote that Decatur’s argument suggested the city, by declining to seek preclearance, could itself use the Voting Rights Act to block the council-manager referendum.

“The defendants, however, are not arbiters of federal election law,” Kallon wrote.

“Essentially,” continued Kallon, “viewing the facts in a light most favorable to Voketz, the defendants have unilaterally declined to implement the results of an election.”

Carl Cole, Voketz’s lawyer, said the ruling was an affirmation of the people’s right to choose their own form of government.

“I think it’s a great opinion for Gary Voketz and the people who voted for the manager-council form of government back in 2010,” Cole said. “The judge was highly critical of the position by the mayor and council in not implementing the manager-council form of government.”

The city argued the Shelby County ruling was “prospective,” or applied only to cases after the Shelby County ruling, said George Royer, a Huntsville attorney representing the city.

“We respectfully disagree with (Kallon’s) opinion,” Royer said.

Kallon said his research found four federal cases — in Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and Arizona — that addressed whether the Shelby County ruling applied retroactively.

“Like this court, all four concluded that it does,” Kallon wrote.

Royer said the city had hoped for a favorable ruling to avoid a trial. He said the case will now turn to the heart of the issue: Would changing to three council members elected by district and two members elected citywide be discriminatory because no black candidate could be elected?

The city now has five council members elected by district. District 1 Councilman Billy Jackson, the only black member, is from the only district with a black majority.

The 2010 referendum triggered the state Council-Manager Act, which would have required the appointment of a city manager as the city’s chief executive and would have required the city to drop from five to three council districts.

“This lawsuit is not over by any means,” Royer said.

Cole said the city’s best move would be to settle the case.

“You would hope as a taxpayer they would quit wasting taxpayer money on this and reach out to us,” he said.

The city early this year had spent almost $112,000 defending the lawsuit. It has agreed to pay Voketz’s legal fees if he wins the remainder of the lawsuit. Those fees, Cole said early this year, are in “six figures.”

Told of Royer’s comment that the focus will turn to the merits of the case concerning whether the change in government would be discriminatory, Cole said, “That’s great. We’re happy to address that.”

Cole said the city could adopt three districts with one district that has a 40 percent minority population. He said that would be enough for minorities in the minority district to be able to elect the candidate of their choice.

All blacks don’t vote for a black candidate and all whites don’t vote for a white candidate, Cole said.

He said a district with at least a 40 percent minority population could be drawn without substantial gerrymandering.

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Keith Clines can be reached at 256-340-2438 or keith.clines@decaturdaily.com. Follow on Twitter @DD_KeithClines.

(19) comments

Jett the Angry Dwarf

Kirby is way way way worse that Jett could ever be.

Kirby=Loser #1

HAHAHAHAHA... Bye-Bye Kirby-Jett!!

charles Werdebaugh

I'm a country boy that don't understand ? We voted and nothing is done ? Who do we need for a Mayer with backbone? Trump ? Come on folks, do what we voted on !

charles kirby

Do not lose track of the fact that the vote was on an invalid act of the legislature. That act did not apply to a city of Decatur's classification. Voketz & company misled the public from the begining. Then, there is the issues of federal guidelines being violated...Remember, the voters once approved poll taxes and opposed women voting......but the feds disagreed.....guess who won!?

Jett the Angry Dwarf

Dwight Jett is making too much sense. Run for Mayor Jett. Fly High with Jett! That is the easiest way to fix this whole mess, Jett. You are right on. Why don't the city submit their plan to this judge?

Cari King

I am thankful that Judge Kallon ruled in favor of Voketz. The will of the people should not be summarily dismissed by local government. IF there is an issue with minority voting/representation, why was it ever put up for a vote to begin with? No one has been able to provide a satisfactory answer for that. All of this could've been avoided had city leaders put their heads together to figure out a way to logistically implement it instead of grasping at straws to avoid doing what the citizens of Decatur voted for. It's too bad that the legal system is so sluggish - I doubt that there will be any resolution on this matter until well after the 2016 elections. By that time, I imagine those that fought the issue so vehemently will have been voted out of office.

Pamela Blakely

Decatur already has a plan than complies with the Council Manger form of government and attempts to comply with the Voting Rights Act. Decatur should provide the Federal Judge the plan and let him tell us if the plan complies with federal law.

If it complies - implement it.

If it does not comply - is there a better implementation plan that will work?

Or we can spend thousands on lawyers.

Opinion Writer scores this match in favor of Carl Cole.

The previous match of transferring the case to federal court by the City was also a City loss.

Cole leads the series against the Mayor & Council 2-0.

Jett the Angry Dwarf

Jett for Mayor. Fly High with Jett. Cole for Council. VoketZ with a Z for city manager.

MIke Wascom

Decatur “failed to present the court with any legal basis for failing to implement the results of the 2010 referendum.”
Exactly, and its just as I knew it would be. This city cannot arbitrarily pick and choose laws it wants to support and ignore the will of the voter.g
For a change the little guy wins again. Thank You Cole firm and Mr. Voketz for taking this on.
Our city lawyer should be fired for his ineptitude and cow-towing to the mayor and city council vs. doing his job which was to give sound advice. A 7th grade civics student could have given better advice.

Sam Cat

I have said many times it was not the place of the City Council to interpret the law or predict what the courts may or may not have decided. They should have implemented what we voted for and let the courts decided whether it was in violation of any law.

With regards to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, can anyone cite an incident in the past 30 years where ANY legal voter was denied the right to vote based on skin color?

Jett the Angry Dwarf

What does anything Kirby said have to do with this case? I'm going to pray you bunch of tyrants don't get to ignore voters. It is hilarious that Charles Kirby now comes on here acting like he cares about Billy Jackson's district. Vokets saved us from Bass pro and now he is going to save us from you incompetent council and mayor. How much money did the city waste to get a judge to tell them to do what we voted to do? Vote them all out and start with KKirby

charles kirby

Vokets!? Really, gosh you sure are full of "smarts" & facts! NOT!

Jett the Angry Dwarf

What are you talking about? I know you just wasted a bunch of city money fighting against the people of Decatur. I know the judge said he has not seen any reason why you did what you did. I know you are a liar and a dumb one. How can anybody sue about discrimination if a judge tells you you have to do something? Explain that to me genius.

Jett the Angry Dwarf

Answer my question KKirby. How much money did the city just spend to get told what we already know?

charles kirby

None....because you know nothing.

Orville Wahoski

Paying a six figure salary to a Huntsville Lawyers to represent Decaturr? Don't we have any smart ones in Decatur? We spend money on outside cities and then we can afford foolish things like the train depot, boat for the police dept. etc. farm out garbage collection putting city employees out of work. What's wrong with this picture?

Orville Wahoski

Why put the problem before the citizens to vote on , if it's not going to happen.? Give the people what they want.
right now the city officials is running Decatur like dictators , saying what's best for the people and not letting them decide. Like spending money on the white elephant train depot then saying can;t do our garbage collection because e of funds. Quit spending money foolishly. Already cost over original plan is going up on train depot. How many more will there be?

charles kirby

Read the statements again. Then pray the plaintifs don't get their way because Decatur will be buried under a tidal wave of discrimination lawsuits. Interesting that Voketz worked in planning in or about the time Decatur first got in trouble with the federal government. When all the people elected one time came off one street in SE Decatur, you have to know there is a problem and that problem will be centered around failure to allow a proper chance for election of a minority representative.

George Harvey

What you say mayor and council about the judge opinion?

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