Bernice Brooks, who first represented District 1 in 2000, was found unanimously by the Carroll County Board of Elections to be living in the newly redistricted District 3.
“I am devastated, and that’s it,” Brooks said after the hearing Tuesday evening. “But we’ll be all right.”
Brooks was represented by Carrollton attorney Gary Bunch, who said the former educator will be seeking an appeal, but he was not sure in which court he would file the paperwork.
“I just got this case (Monday night),” Bunch said. “I haven’t had the proper amount of time to review what we can do going forward.”
Brooks was disqualified because, although the majority of her property is in District 1, her house is built in District 3. Brooks lives at 760 Bailey Brooks Road, formerly Reed Road, in Villa Rica.
Becky Deese, elections supervisor for Carroll County, said the district maps had a line drawn at a power line, instead of the road, where the line was believed to have been drawn.
Deese said she had not gone into the board of elections’ system to ascertain Brooks’ qualifications as a candidate.
“I assumed that none of the sitting incumbents would have been drawn out,” Deese said. “I was wrong to assume that.”
The issue was brought to the attention of the department of elections last Friday, when Brooks’ husband received an absentee ballot for the July 31 election without his wife’s name among the choices.
“On July 6, Bernice came to our office and said, ‘I can’t even vote for myself,’ and we all laughed because we thought it was just an error,” Deese said. “But then, when we researched more, we called the Reapportionment Office, the attorney general, the secretary of state, Cynthia Daley. We tried to get everyone involved.”
To uphold the board’s claim that it matters where Brooks’ house is, not her property, Deese cited a portion of the Official Code of Georgia § 21-2-217 (a) (1) which states: “The residence of any person shall be held to be in that place in which such person’s habitation is fixed, without any present intention of removing therefrom.”
Deese said Brooks, who qualified for the election on May 24, was pulled on a list of incumbents on May 16 to “get ready” for the election.
Bunch asked if Deese had ample opportunity to review facts before Brooks’ qualifying, and Deese said that she had.
Bunch asked if Deese had all the facts on May 24 that she had at last night’s hearing, and she said, “Yes, I had access to all those facts.”
During the board’s ruling, the three members were given a chance to explain their votes.
Catherine Brock, vice chair of the board of elections, called the issue “a tough situation.”
“I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t love Bernice,” she said. “I wish this could be resolved legally. It went too far for us to turn around and correct it.”
Brooks was questioned by her own attorney to verify if she was told she would remain in District 1.
“I was told specifically by the reapportionment office that I would stay in District 1,” Brooks said.
Brooks went on to say the position is “very important to her” and is “very important” to members of her community.
Board of Elections Chairman James Gamble said he was following the law given to him with his vote.
“The laws have to be looked at, and we have to suffer the consequences,” Gamble said. “I’ve known Bernice since we went to school together, but that’s the law.”
Bunch, in his closing statement to the board, said it would be “fair and just” to keep Brooks’ name on the ballot.
“I think it’s clear that it was the intent to keep incumbents in their district,” he said. “No one understands how this alleged mix-up occurred. Any error on the legislative level should not counter the intent of Carroll County officials.”
Bunch said he found it “significant” and “telling” that neither of the other two District 1 candidates, Rob Cleveland and Terry Turner, had raised an issue about Brooks’ residency.
“You have to look at intent and the spirit of things,” he said. “It’s fair and just and proper to leave her on the ballot despite this technical error.”
Brooks was one of the members of the board of education who went to Atlanta after the 2010 Census results were published to draw new district reapportionment maps.
Carroll County Schools attorney Cynthia Daley also went with several members of the board, as well as Superintendent Scott Cowart, to the meeting with a reapportionment consultant.
“They put a big map on the wall, and put a dot where all of the incumbents live,” Daley said.
Daley said the board had to draw new reapportionment maps to provide an equal number of voters in each district.
“With the heavy growth in the north part of the county and the light growth in the southern part of the county, we knew the lines in the south had to come up to make it happen,” Daley said.
Daley stressed that the board’s reapportionment consultant assured them that no incumbents would be moved to new districts.
“We went into that meeting with two intentions: to keep our incumbents in their current district, and to be in compliance with the one person, one vote aspect of the Voting Rights Act,” Daley said.
Daley said their consultant had asked specifically for each incumbents’ address, which resulted in the dots on the map.
When it was discovered there was an error, Daley said the reapportionment office had explained that the dot had been put in the wrong place.
Daley said the office told her the dot symbolizing Brooks’ property had been placed at 760 Edge Road, an address about a mile away from Brooks’ address.
“Our reapportionment consultant, who was very competent to work with, put the dot in the wrong place,” she said.
Bunch asked Daley why the county had not immediately done something to correct the issue, but Daley said it was a state-level issue and that nothing could be done.
“The county can’t amend the line, and the school board can’t amend it either,” she said. “The only way to amend it is through the state legislature, and they do not reconvene until January.”
When Bunch suggested taking the issue to a federal court, Daley again said that would not solve the problem.
“Federal courts would not look at where anyone lives,” she said. “They would just draw the lines and all the incumbents might be out of their district.”
Daley said near the end of her comments that Brooks could be put on the ballot provisionally if she went to the Carroll County Superior Court and asked for a stay on the ruling.
Throughout her comments, Daley stressed that it was no one’s intention to ever cut Brooks out of her district.
“There was never a thought process that she was outside her district,” she said. “I don’t believe for one minute that anyone on the school board had any idea that Brooks was out of her district.”
Vicki Anderson, the county commissioner for Brooks’ district, said qualifying someone should mean that person is legitimately qualified.
“If I was running for election, I wouldn’t be comfortable knowing I may not be qualified,” Anderson said.
Deese called Peter Debick, manager of geographic information system (GIS) for Carroll County, to speak on the district maps.
“These GIS maps should be used as a guide,” Debick said. “GIS is conceptual and can be off a little. Written right on the map, it says to ‘use this map as a guide and not as definitive information.’ ”
When asked if he realized Brooks would be out of her district when formulating the map, Debick said his maps do not have names on them, only properties.
Debick was asked if anyone contacted him after Brooks qualified to verify that she was living in the right district, to which he replied, “No, I was not contacted.”
State Rep. Dustin Hightower, District 68, said he had “very little knowledge” of the map, but had passed it on to the state legislature because it had been unanimously approved by the school board.
“I asked Kevin Cooke if the board agreed on it unanimously, and he said, ‘Yes,’ ” Hightower said. “So we took the map and submitted it exactly as it was given to us. No changes.”
Deese said the incident is “very unfortunate” and that all of her staff members are upset over the ordeal.
“We would all rather be anywhere else than here right now,” she said. “If it was as easy as pulling the line down, we would do it. But we have to look at what’s legal.”