Retaining the commission's size and implementing cumulative voting would help minority representation, group said

By Penelope Deese
Published February 26th 2003 in Mobile Register
BAY MINETTE -- A local citizens group supports a seven-member commission, preferably elected at-large using a controversial system that allows voters to cast multiple ballots in the same race, a representative told Baldwin County commissioners Tuesday.

Edward Lawrence, secretary of Citizens for Responsible Government, said the county's minority voters could be better represented through a "cumulative voting" system and by retaining a seven-member commission.

Cumulative voting, a system Lawrence said already is successfully used in some states, gives a voter as many votes as the number of seats up for election. Voters could use all of their votes for one candidate or split them among the candidates in a variety of different ways.

For example, a Baldwin County voter would receive seven votes to elect commissioners. He could give all seven of his votes to one candidate, give three votes to one and four to another, or any other combination.

Using this system, which would elect commissioners at-large, minority voters could pool their votes to elect a candidate who they feel will represent them well, Lawrence said.

The commission has struggled with claims that Baldwin's electoral system does not provided adequate minority repre sentation ever since a group filed a voting rights lawsuit against the panel in 1986.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson expanded the commission to seven members in response to the suit, but he reversed his opinion last August, citing a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that struck down voting districts created solely on the basis of race. He ordered the commission to return to a four-person panel but did not set a deadline for an election to take place.

Jim Blacksher, a Birmingham lawyer for the plaintiffs in that original case, has said a four-member commission would not represent his clients well. He said Tuesday he will also ask the judge "to eliminate the residential district and the majority voting requirements."

But Blacksher also said he doubts the four-member commis sion will ever be created.

"I don't think (Judge Thompson)'s going to see the old system put back into place," he said. "Certainly if he does, I can assure you the plaintiffs in this case are going to appeal."

Commissioner Allen Perdue asked Lawrence if he had suggested the group's idea to Baldwin County's legislative delegation. Lawrence said he arranged to meet with the commissioners first so he might be able to get their support for the plan.

Commissioner Chuck Browdy told Lawrence that commissioners have little power over the local state delegation.

"Our endorsement is meaningless. In fact, it will probably do more harm than good," Browdy said, adding that Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Orange Beach, has supported returning to four commissioners and is not likely to endorse keeping seven commissioners or using cumulative voting.

Commissioner George Price agreed.

"Right now, I guess in the pecking order of things, County Commission is on the bottom," he said.

Lawrence said he would discuss the issue with local lawmakers and keep the commission informed of any progress he makes.

Commissioners also used Tuesday's meeting to discuss an updated version of their employee handbook -- which was reduced to half its size -- as well as revising the county's policy on how to pay employees who have been called to active military duty.

Seven county employees in reserve services have been activated, and four others have been placed on alert.

County Staff Attorney Scott Barnett gave a presentation about federal laws on continuing the pay and benefits of activated personnel and then described how the county is now paying its military staff members.

County employees who have been activated already receive up to 168 hours of full pay after they leave and can receive an additional 168 hours of pay if they are called to duty by the governor. Their benefits continue uninterrupted, although these benefits sometimes have to be maintained manually since, once they have exhausted their 168 hours and any other accumulated leave, their names are dropped from the county's computer system.

But the federal government also allows local governments to make up the difference between an employee's military pay and his civilian salary.

This would not only help those who would experience a pay cut once activated, Barnett said, but would also make it easier for those employees to continue to accumulate leave time of any type since they would remain in the personnel department's computer system.

Commission Chairman Jonathan Armstrong asked Personnel Director Susan Lovett to address questions about disability and retirement benefits while the soldiers are overseas, then present the item during a commission meeting in three weeks.