The Long County Board of Elections on Thursday held a meeting to address issues that, according to Chairwoman Vanessa Cunningham, were not addressed by the court when a new election and a redrawing of the district lines were ordered.
Before that meeting, however, members of the board held a public gathering, during which they claimed they had been unfairly criticized in the press and judged by many in the community.
Board members said the purpose of the meeting was to clear up those issues and allow community members to ask questions.
“We have taken punches that we should not have taken,” Cunningham said. She added that public perception seems to be that the U.S. Department of Justice rejected Long County’s initial election because of actions by the board, but she said that’s not true.
“It was rejected because of 25 years of not redistricting in the county,” Cunningham said.
She also accused the Long County newspaper of slandering people and groups, launching personal attacks regarding the issue.
“Our interest is the best interest of everyone here,” Cunningham said.
After she finished speaking, she fielded questions and comments from those in attendance.
Board of Education Vice Chairwoman Florence Baggs said, “What you just said felt like a tongue lashing against the people of Long County.”
According to Baggs, both sides — the board of elections and the governing bodies — need to accept responsibility for what happened with the election.
Cunningham told Baggs that the people of Long County were not responsible for the election and the required redistricting; she said she had been referring to the governing authorities.
Former elections superintendent and Long County Probate Judge Marie Middleton reacted strongly to Cunningham’s remarks. She said that during her 15 years of overseeing elections, she hid nothing from the county’s citizens, but she claimed that Cunningham did hide things during her time as the chairwoman of the board of elections. Middleton said she holds Cunningham accountable for what transpired with the previous election.
Incoming District 5 County Commissioner Dwight Gordon said, “I wholeheartedly agree (with Middleton).”
Cunningham said she had not “taken shots” at Middleton, to which Middleton responded, “That’s a lie.”
Despite the heated atmosphere in the courthouse, some questions were answered, such as how the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice got involved in invalidating the previous election and the redistricting.
District 1 Commissioner David Richardson and Baggs denied the rumor that they contacted the DoJ to bring attention to the matter and instead said the DoJ contacted them.
Baggs said a DoJ representative asked her whether she had a problem with the racial breakdown of the initially proposed redistricted maps submitted by the county. Baggs said she told them, “No, I did not object to the map.” Richardson said that the DoJ did not ask him that question.
Meeting attendees also learned how the redistricting matter reached the state level. County Attorney Jay Swindell said he had not seen or reviewed any paperwork submitted by the county requesting the change, and Cunningham said that she had not submitted any paperwork on behalf of the county requesting the redistricting. District 2 Commissioner Wallace Shaw said that the county had been out of compliance with district requirements, but no one was made aware of it until after the 2010 Census. He said that after the Census was released, former District 167 Rep. Roger Lane contacted the county commissioners and told them the county was out of compliance and that the district maps needed to be redrawn.
Shaw said Lane said that for the state to redraw the map, the commission had to approve it. Shaw said the commissioners discussed it but felt that the county did not have a staff qualified to redraw the maps, so they approved allowing Lane take the matter to the state. Shaw said that the only input the commission gave on the redrawn maps was in making corrections to the maps afterwards, when errors had been made that removed incumbents from their districts.
With the election now over, District 5 board of education member Emma Strickland asked whether the new officials would assume their posts before the May 13 board of education meeting. BoE Attorney Joe McGovern said they could because the state would have the election certified by then.
Strickland asked whether the current district map would need to be changed. Swindell said the court “encouraged” the county to draw a new district map before the next county election. Strickland then put the newly elected officials on notice, saying that since they are aware of this, it should not be put off.