A bill to add five district seats to the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners was approved by a Georgia Senate committee on Thursday over objections from local officials and some committee members over the racial make up of proposed districts and the financial cost to Gwinnett taxpayers.
The Senate State and Local Government Operations Committee voted 4-3 along party lines to approve a Republican-backed plan to expand the county commission from four districts to five districts.
State Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, filed the bill and state Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, said he plans to carry the bill in the House.
“We currently have five commissioners in Gwinnett who are responsible for a budget of over $2 billion,” said Efstration, referring to the county’s 2021 budget, which is actually $1.91 billion. “Expanding the size of the commission is not a new issue. As you are well aware, a Democrat state representative introduced a bill in 2017 to expand the size of the county commission (by two seats).
“I do not recall Democrats raising, at the time, that that was cost prohibitive for the county at the time. I think greater oversight of such a large budget impacting so many residents is a great thing and this is a very reasonable number put forward to provide that kind of oversight and representation of constituents that Sen. Dixon and I represent, but also all of Gwinnett.”
Opponents raised concerns about whether the proposed map would create about five majority-white commission districts in a majority-minority county. There were also concerns raised about the financial cost to the county since each county commissioner is not only paid a salary but has a staff, which incurs additional salary and benefits costs, to handle constituent issues.
The Gwinnett County Commission had been all-Republican from the mid-1980’s until Commissioners Marlene Fosque and Ben Ku, both Democrats and the first people of color on the commission, were elected in 2018. Democrats swept the remaining seats on the commission, including the chairman’s seat, in 2020.
Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson and Commissioner addressed the committee during the hearing. Under the proposal, Gwinnett would have 10 commissioners in all, including nine district commissioners and a chairperson.
Hendrickson pointed out that no public input was solicited from Gwinnett residents before the bills were drafted and introduced. The proposal to add two seats in 2017 was intended to be a two legislative session process where it was introduced in the 2017 session, public input would be gathered in the fall of 2017 and a decision on whether to push forward with a vote would happen during the 2018 legislative session.
“The proposed legislation doubling the size of our board comes under the guise of increasing representation for the citizens of Gwinnett,” Hendrickson said. “But, if the intent was to have better representation, then why were the citizens not asked to give input?”
Hours after the hearing ended, the commission issued a lengthy statement rebuking the bill, saying Dixon “blindsided” county officials with the legislation.
“The current board members have not received any indication from Gwinnett County residents wanting to see drastic changes made to a governing body that has seen so much success, both recently and in the past,” the commission said in the statement. “SB6EX bypassed the normal local legislation process and is questionable to be considered ‘emergency’ local legislation.
“The revitalization of Gwinnett Place Mall, opening and operating two COVID-19 vaccination clinics for residents, increasing patrols at Asian-owned businesses, establishing the first-ever Police Citizens Advisory Board – even being recognized by the White House as a top performer for its use of federal stimulus funds, are just a few highlights of the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners’ recent accomplishments.”