The council can't change its form of government through mediation of a lawsuit demanding it honor a 2010 referendum, but neither can it legally abide by that referendum, Councilman Charles Kirby told the Decatur City Council on Monday morning.
Kirby said during the council’s pre-meeting work session that the only way to solve the issue is to hold another referendum on a “legal” form of government.
“The City Council has not voted on seeking mediation,” Kirby said. “And we have no authority whatsoever to seek anything different from what the voters approved.”
Kirby said he believes the city will get sued again if it does anything short of holding another referendum.
City voters in 2010 approved a form of government that would be headed by a professional city manager, three district council members and two at-large council members, one of whom would serve as a part-time mayor.
However, the City Council refused to implement a form of government it said would violate the federal Voting Rights Act by eliminating the majority black district. Former city employee Gary Voketz filed a lawsuit in 2014, and the council has yet to implement the plan.
Kirby was responding to City Council President Paige Bibbee’s recent push for mediation in the Voketz case and The Decatur Daily’s story on Sunday that reported she was unhappy city attorneys filed another motion to dismiss the case. The latest motion argues recent amendments to the state Council-Manager Act are fatal to Voketz's lawsuit.
The City Council has not held a vote on whether to enter into settlement talks, but Bibbee said Monday she believes fellow members Kristi Hill and Chuck Ard also support mediation. Voketz attorney Carl Cole has repeatedly said he and his client are willing to go into mediation on the case.
“We agree that we need to know at least what they (Voketz and Cole) are asking for to drop this lawsuit,” Bibbee said. “This has already cost us $244,000, and that was before our legal counsel filed this last motion.”
Councilman Billy Jackson agreed with Kirby that the City Council can’t mediate or resolve the lawsuit. He said the council has to implement exactly what the voters approved in 2010.
“I don’t like it, but that’s what the public wanted,” Jackson said.
Ard wouldn’t comment on whether he supports mediation. Instead, he said he supports allowing the city’s legal counsel to make the decisions in the case.
Kirby and Bibbee, who were not in office at the time, were critical of the city and state officials who in 2010 allowed voters to vote on a form of government that the officials believed was illegal.
City Attorney Herman Marks said the City Council had no say in whether there would be a referendum after the voters turned in the petition.
The City Council submitted the council-manager form of government to the U.S. Department of Justice, but withdrew the submission before the Justice Department made a final ruling as to whether the drop from five to three districts was permissible under the Voting Rights Act.
City officials and the Legal Department have since refused to implement the plan, arguing it would illegally eliminate a majority minority district, and the case ended up in federal court.
“It would be terrible for this city not to have a majority minority district,” Kirby said.
Bibbee said she thinks voters want a council manager “because they see the efficiency it would create in our government.” She believes voters will quickly get together another petition for another election, which she said would cost about $80,000.
She said she's not sure whether there is enough time for another vote on the city’s form of government to be held prior to next August’s municipal elections, because the state Legislature would need to schedule the vote.