On Thursday, Oct. 3, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted to approve something that all of the commissioners thought was utterly ridiculous.
“It’s a screw job is what it is,“ said Commissioner Hank Henning of the board being forced to, on a 6 to 2 vote, pay $425,000 to cover legal fees in a lawsuit that originated from a City of Greensboro redistricting case four years ago. It was a case that Guilford County essentially had nothing to do with, however, at the Oct. 3 meeting, the county and its taxpayers paid dearly to cover the legal fees of those who sued over the redistricting.
Though all the commissioners were truly against paying the money – and there was about a minute of silence before any commissioner was willing to make the motion when the time arose – the motion did pass with only Commissioners Jeff Phillips and Chairman Alan Branson, casting the two no votes.
Earlier this year, the US Fourth Circuit of Appeals reversed a lower court decision and ruled that Guilford County must pay the Southern Coalition for Social Justice to cover legal fees the organization ran up in the lawsuit.
That ruling overturned a decision in early 2018 in which federal Middle District of North Carolina Judge Catherine Eagles ruled that Guilford County would not be forced to pay those legal fees to the Southern Coalition for the 2015 case the coalition brought against the Guilford County Board of Elections.
The reason the commissioners were so angry at the Oct. 3 meeting is that the Guilford County Board of Elections, the party that was sued by the coalition, played no role in the matter – other than to follow state election law. In the 2015 redistricting dispute that this lawsuit came out of, the NC General Assembly changed the number of Greensboro City Council districts from five to eight and eliminated the three at-large council seats. The Board of Elections was sued only because it’s the body that holds elections.
At the Oct. 3 meeting, Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne recommended the board approve the settlement, stating, “At this point, it’s a business decision.”
Guilford County could have appealed the case to the US Supreme Court but that would have cost a great deal of money and the case had little chance of being heard by that court. If it had not settled, the county could have been on the hook for $710,000 or more.
Henning expressed at length his complete and utter disgust over the board being forced into a corner.
“We asked to not be a part of it, but we were forced to be a part of it,” he said.
Henning said that the Fourth Circuit judges apparently made the decision late on a Friday afternoon when they were ready to hit the golf course. He said it was an absolutely absurd decision and said the court clearly paid no attention whatsoever to the facts of the case.
“This really calls into question how the justices do their job,” Henning said.
Commissioners Phillips, Kay Cashion and Branson also expressed forcefully their views regarding the absurdity of the situation.
“No one truly responsible has come to the aid of this county,” Phillips said. “No one has stepped in to make this wrong right.”
He said that Guilford County had been “left out to dry” by state legislators.
Commissioner Justin Conrad, the commissioner who finally reluctantly made the motion to pay the $425,000, said the comments of Phillips and the others were “spot on.”
But Conrad also said that the board had to be practical about where it now found itself.
“If you don’t settle there is a very real chance that we will have to pay the original amount of about 710,000,” he said. “We have already been found against once”.
“I agree it’s not fair, “ Conrad added. “It stinks; it absolutely stinks that we’re here – but we are.”