While Democrats continue pushing to get the MARTA referendum moved to November, on Wednesday Gwinnett County commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash shut the door on the possibility of it happening.
At the heart of the tug-of-war over whether the referendum can be moved from its scheduled March 19 date to the Nov. 6 general election is the question of what state law allows. Democratic legislators in Gwinnett’s legislative delegation asserted county commissioners could move it as late as the beginning of October.
Nash said, however, that county attorneys have told commissioners that state law regarding publishing public notices for special elections must also be taken into account.
“(County attorneys) advised that, based on the special elections law, action by both the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Elections to call the referendum and the publishing of a notice of the call in the newspaper had to be done at least 90 days in advance of the election date,” Nash said. “Thus, it is not possible now to call a referendum for November 2018.”
There had been some question after last week’s vote by the Board of Commissioners to schedule the referendum for March about what the time frame would be for moving the referendum to the general election ballot.
At the time, Nash has said there were differing opinions among attorneys about the deadline for notifying the public about a referendum and that all she could say is that the time frame would be tight.
The general election ballot already includes a bond referendum for the school system and a referendum on allowing brunch time alcohol sales on Sundays in unincorporated Gwinnett.
State Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, is countering Nash’s claims about when public notification of a special election has to take place. He said during a press conference held by Democratic lawmakers at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center on Wednesday that commissioners could conceivably call for the election later in the fall if they chose. “Under the new legislation that we passed earlier this year, such a referendum is to be treated like any other special election, meaning that Gwinnett could technically wait until 30 days before the Nov. 6 election to add it to the ballot,” Marin said.
Advance in-person voting for the general election begins Oct. 15.
But then there’s the question of whether politics played a role in the referendum being scheduled for March instead of November.
Nash told the media after the commission voted 4-1 on Aug. 1 to approve a contract with MARTA, and to call for a referendum on joining MARTA, that getting as many “Yes” votes on the commission as possible would be important when trying to sell the public on the contract.
She reiterated that stance on Wednesday.
“I am pleased with the almost unanimous actions of the Board of Commissioners last week. I believe having this level of support from board members was critical,” she said. “I look forward to talking with the entire community about the contract, the transit development plan and the opportunity that Gwinnett has as we prepare for the March referendum.”
That has fueled speculation that moving the referendum to March was a political compromise to get more commissioners to approve the contract.
Democratic lawmakers highlighted that belief at a press conference at GJAC. They pointed to the fact that Commissioner John Heard had publicly said he would vote against the contract nearly a week before the vote, but then ended up voting in favor of it.
Heard is up for election this year and has a Democratic opponent, Marlene Fosque.
Democrats also criticized the all-Republican commission because of the estimated $500,000 price tag that would be spent for a special election next year would be a waste of taxpayer funds. They also said turnout would be low for the vote.
“This political compromise is at the expense of tax dollars here for all Gwinnettians, and what do we get for this compromise? A higher expense for a special election,” state Rep. Brenda Lopez, D-Norcross, said. “Estimates have been a reduction in participation by Gwinnettians of anywhere up to 80 percent lower turnout if we kept this referendum in March.”
In addition to Lopez and Marin, Democratic lawmakers from Gwinnett who participated in the press conference Wednesday included Reps. Dewey McClain and Karen Bennett. Candidates for legislative seats, including House District 105 candidate Donna McLeod and Senate District 9 candidate Cheryle R. Moses, also participated in the press conference.
Ben Ku also stood with the lawmakers and candidates. Ku is the democratic nominee running against Commissioner Lynette Howard for county commission District 2.
The legislators accused commissioners of putting the vote off until March to benefits Republicans running for offices ranging from governor to county commission and school board seats.
Speculation offered at the press conference ranged from a nebulous “third party” of behind the scenes of power brokers pushing for a delayed MARTA vote to commissioners being pressured from higher ups somewhere in Republican politics to postpone the referendum.
It’s an accusation of political maneuvering that Democrats also made last week when the March 19 referendum date was set.
“It is definitely politics,” McClain said. “They are suppressing votes … My concern is if you can have an alcohol vote Sunday brunch bill on the ballot to bring out a certain class of people, you definitely could have had the same thing on the ballot to bring out transit (supporters).”