The city of Lithonia may have to redo its recent election.
To comply with the Voting Rights Act, all elections in Georgia must be precleared by the federal Justice Department—an action still pending for Lithonia’s election. And missing recordings of city council meetings may play a part in sparing the city a do-over.
The Justice Department has asked for more information about the special election to fill the vacant council seats, City Attorney Winston Denmark said. The department wants to see a resolution from the council showing that it voted to hold the Nov. 8 election.
The city had the option to hold the election on Nov. 8 or in March 2012, but decided to hold it this month to fill the seats vacated by Deborah Jackson, who ran for and won the mayoral position, and Al Franklin, who sought unsuccessfully to keep his seat.
Since there was already an election this month about school taxes, Lithonia council members decided to hold a special election this month to avoid using taxpayer money for another one in March.
“It wasn’t fair to the citizens to have an election in November and another election that they were going to have to pay for out of tax money in March,” Kathleen De Cocq said.
Although the city council did not adopt such a resolution, council members said they came to a consensus that would be reflected in the council’s minutes, if some were available.
“There wasn’t a vote taken,” De Cocq said. “There was a discussion.”
Now the city is trying to locate the minutes or tapes of meetings held from May to August.
“I don’t even know what to say,” said council member Doreen Carter. “I don’t know why we don’t have the tapes. I don’t understand why we don’t have the minutes.
“We have no control over these tapes once they leave the council meeting,” Carter said. “When we had a city clerk, the city clerk had the tapes. But during this particular time we didn’t have a city clerk. The mayor is the one with possession of the tapes.”
Denmark said he has been trying to work through city administrator Gerald Sanders to get the tapes from the mayor.
“If we do not supply the resolution or the minutes or something else that would satisfy the Justice Department, they will not preclear the election and the election will be void,” Denmark said. “That is a result that nobody wants.”
An option may be for the council members to sign an affidavit “indicating that the council did in fact take a vote…to the special election on Nov. 8,” Denmark said. “I think that will satisfy the Justice Department.”
Council member Rick Dodd said he is concerned about signing an affidavit saying that a vote was taken if the tapes, if found, prove otherwise. And the council does not know the exact date of the meeting during which the consensus was reached.
“Right now we don’t know whether it’s in the minutes at all, [at] which meeting [the vote] took place, and if it’s on tape,” Denmark said.
“I cannot emphasize to the city enough that this is a critically important issue,” Denmark said. “The election results could likely be voided.
“I don’t know if there is a greater priority that the city of Lithonia has at this moment,” Denmark said. “We need to marshal all of our resources as a city to find those minutes and if they don’t exist then to take some alternative steps that I’ve recommended.”
Denmark said that “what the justice department pre-clears is a decision by the governing body to hold an election.”
“If we don’t have a decision or some official action by the city….then there’s nothing that the Justice Department can preclear,” Denmark said. “We need something that shows evidence of that decision. I need something to work with.”
The Justice Department is expected to make a decision by Dec. 15.
“The stakes are high,” Denmark said. Justice Department officials “don’t know who or what Lithonia is. They don’t know whether there is a plan afoot to deprive certain individuals of their voting rights.
“They take it very seriously,” Denmark said.
A swearing-in ceremony scheduled for Nov. 14 for newly-elected council members Pat Miller and Tracy-Ann Williams was postponed indefinitely as the city works through its election troubles. Miller and Williams were elected to fill two seats vacated by council members who ran for mayor.