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Judge hears arguments in charter amendment lawsuit

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Attorneys await a ruling in a lawsuit that seeks to stop local school officials from alleged on-the-clock campaigning against a constitutional amendment slated for the Nov. 6 ballot.

After more than two hours of arguments in Gwinnett County Superior Court on Wednesday, Judge Dawson Jackson adjourned the proceeding, saying that he would not rule on the matter during the session.

In the lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 8, a group of five plaintiffs -- all Gwinnett County residents -- are ordering Gwinnett County Public Schools and Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks to refrain from advocating against a constitutional amendment that aims to affirm the state's authority to charter independent public schools.

In court Wednesday, an attorney for the plaintiffs told the judge that their complaint "alleges that there was a coordinated effort throughout the school day to discuss the campaign."

"The U.S. Constitution and Georgia code prohibit the use of taxpayer funds for anything other than educational purposes," said the plaintiffs' attorney Josh Belinfante. "Those are the issues that control this (case). It's about those provisions of law. The extent in which there has been involvement...is extensive."

Victoria Sweeny, an attorney representing Wilbanks and GCPS, told the judge that the injunction sought by plaintiffs is "asking this court to suppress the ideas and information the public is entitled to have from its leaders."

Added Sweeny: "They are leaders -- that's what leaders do. They tell people their opinion on matters that are of public importance, particularly as it affects the entity that they govern and that they lead."

The Georgia School Boards Association, an organization also listed as a defendant in the lawsuit for allegedly acting as an extension of school board member advocacy, was represented by an attorney who echoed much of Sweeny's remarks.

Attorney Phil Hartley referenced state Anti -- SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation) compliance. The term refers to alleged lawsuits intended to silence government action on an issue.

"Under the provision, the courts have been very clear," Hartley said. "Any claim that can be reasonably construed as infringing upon First Amendment rights is required to comply."

Hartley said that the plaintiffs' attorneys did not comply. He told the judge that they did not provide affidavits in the amount of time specified for compliance. For this reason, Hartley filed a motion to have the injunction dismissed.

The judge did not rule on the motion for dismissal, and it was not clear when the judge would issue a ruling on the lawsuit.

Before Dawson adjourned Wednesday's session, Belinfante gave closing remarks:

"This is not about muzzling the speech of the GSBA, the superintendent or the school district," Belinfante said. "This is about when they decide to engage in advocacy and whether they are on the county's time."

The suit lists five Gwinnett County residents as plaintiffs: Sabrina Smith, Shelly Nix, Jim Regan, James R. Lappana and Richard P. Schneider.

A similar case was heard briefly in Fulton Superior Court on Oct. 10, but the judge transferred the hearing for a preliminary injunction against Gwinnett County Public Schools to a different location.

The suit also regarded a claim that local education leaders were campaigning on the taxpayer's dime.

Glenn Delk, an attorney for plaintiffs in that suit, said he was watching Wednesday's proceedings in Gwinnett Superior Court, but did not elaborate on the future of his case.

The hearing in Fulton Superior Court on Oct. 10 involved a group of Georgia residents as plaintiffs, who claimed that GCPS as well as Fulton County Schools and all 180 districts in Georgia should refrain from alleged on-the-clock campaigning against the constitutional amendment.

Comments

rco1847 1 year, 10 months ago

Freedom of speech. It's one of the rights I fought for along with my fellow veterans. Neither side has a right to deny it to the other and then claim it for themselves. Our constitutional rights take precident over all other arguments. If not, we loose our freedom. Let all voices be heard by the public, especially those voices on the peoples payroll.

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Karl 1 year, 10 months ago

What about all the time the governor and his lieutenants are spending ON STATE TIME advocating FOR the passage of the amendment?

Hey Smith and Regan, you two busybodies, why aren't you after the proponents of the amendment as well? Oh, that's right, you agree with their side, so you want to silence those with whom you disagree.

Good work, KOMRADES.

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NewsReader 1 year, 10 months ago

I don't think anyone necessarily has a problem with anyone, including public officials, speaking their mind and voicing their opinion. I think where the issue comes into play is when they spend our tax dollars to do so. Regardless of your side of the issue, do it on your own dime, and that goes for Wilbanks as well as Deal. Because nothing Pi$$e$ off the constituents more than to have their tax dollars squandered on something they wholeheartedly disagree with.

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STEVERAMEY 1 year, 10 months ago

For those of you who believe that this lawsuit is about suppressing free speech or even about the charter school amendment, please take the time to read the lawsuit. It is about the misuse of public funds. Georgia law clearly prohibits the use of taxpayer money, either directly or indirectly through an association, to advocate for or against legislation. Jim and Sabrina have always focused on the use of taxpayer money in Gwinnett County, not across the state of Georgia. If others think there has been misuse of public funds by state officials, they should hire an attorney, do as these 5 plaintiffs have done, and file a lawsuit. Sabrina came across this issue when she was researching GCPS using education funds to pay chamber salaries, which I asked her to do after noticing GCPS was a sponsor of Partnership Gwinnett. The state Department of Education had auditors review the GCPS payments to the chamber and found that the payments are not in compliance with Georgia law. Just as GCPS tried to make taxpayers think they were paying chamber salaries to help taxpayers, they are now trying to make taxpayers think that this lawsuit is about free speech. This lawsuit is about a plain and simple misuse of taxpayer money in a manner that is not in compliance with the law, and not in the best interests of taxpayers no matter what their position on the charter school amendment.

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Karl 1 year, 10 months ago

BS, Steve and you know it.

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BuzzG 1 year, 10 months ago

Alvin Wilbanks can say anything he wants when he is off the clock. But when we the taxpayers are paying his salary, he needs to shut up and do the job we are paying him to do.

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Karl 1 year, 10 months ago

Yeah, well what about the governor then? You can't allow one side to do something you are trying to get the other to stop doing.

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WantingFacts 1 year, 10 months ago

Karl: There is a reason Jim Regan's group is called Citizens for a Better GWINNETT and Sabrina Smith's group is called GWINNETT Citizens for Responsible Government. They focus on GWINNETT issues. I haven't talked to Sabrina since she filed the lawsuit, but in the past, she was willing to share any of her open records with me whenever I asked. If you want to file a lawsuit against anyone for misuse of public funds, she would probably share her open records with you, too.

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