Guilford County’s legislative delegation is all over the map on whether local taxpayers should be reimbursed after getting left holding the bag for an unconstitutional state law that sought to revamp the structure of Greensboro’s municipal government.
The answers from state senators and representatives who represent parts of Guilford range from “sure thing” to maybe and “not on your life.”
At issue is a negotiated settlement of $425,000 in legal fees that the Guilford Board of Commissioners reluctantly opted to pay last week to the winning side in a lawsuit against the measure imposed by Raleigh in July 2015.
County government had nothing to do with the law other than being expected to enforce it (which it never did).
Outraged commissioners said last week they plan to send the delegation a letter seeking recompense after they agreed to pay the negotiated amount for fear of getting soaked even worse if they refused.
“I’d like to help the county if possible,” state Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Whitsett, said of Guilford’s pending request. “We will have to discuss the policy, history and precedence of helping to cover these kinds of costs.”
Meanwhile, state Sen. Michael Garrett and Rep. Pricey Harrison, both Greensboro Democrats, are in the “heck yes” camp.
Harrison said the county “certainly shouldn’t get stuck with this bill,” noting that since Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011, state government has spent $22.8 million defending laws that legislators enacted.
“It’s wrong for the county to be saddled with the massive defense costs of a law almost nobody wanted and was ultimately found to be unconstitutional,” Garrett agreed.
But then there’s state Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-High Point, whose position is “no way.”
“I do not think the state should have to pay the money for this lawsuit,” Brockman said. “If the commissioners want to reclaim the money from those responsible, they should turn to the North Carolina or Guilford County Republican Party whose representative started the redistricting ordeal.”
Brockman’s Republican counterpart from High Point, Rep. John Faircloth said Tuesday that he had not reached a decision because the county has yet to make a formal request and he wants more information.
Hardister said he already has discussed the forthcoming Guilford request with some who lead the General Assembly appropriations committees.
“We are going to look into it,” Hardister said.
The impasse resulted from a 2015 effort led by former Republican state Sen. Trudy Wade to fundamentally change the dynamics of the Greensboro body on which she once served as a councilwoman.
Shortly after the law was passed, the city of Greensboro and a number of residents filed lawsuits opposing the measure that redistributed the city’s 186,000 voters into eight new districts, scrapped three at-large seats, slapped new limits on the mayor’s authority and jettisoned October primaries.
In April 2017, U.S. Middle District Judge Catherine Eagles ruled that the General Assembly had unconstitutionally redistricted the council and that all future elections would be held under the city’s previous governing format — unless a public referendum were held to change it.
After Eagles’ decision, the city waived its legal fees. But the nonprofit Southern Coalition for Social Justice that represented the lawsuit’s other plaintiffs sought attorney’s fees that climbed to about $710,000 after the group successfully appealed an initial court order denying its request to bill the county elections office.
The group agreed to $425,000 in subsequent negotiations, officials said.
Hardister said the process moving ahead now in Raleigh requires leaders of the appropriation committees to discuss the county’s request in detail.
“If there is agreement, then it likely would be placed in a technical corrections bill that makes changes to the state budget,” Hardister said of the road ahead.
The county’s formal written request has not been sent yet and is “still in progress,” said Robin Keller, clerk to the Guilford commissioners.
“I am hopeful to have it out by the end of the week,” she said Tuesday.
Back in 2015, six current members of the county’s 10-person legislative delegation cast votes on final passage of the bill entitled “Municipal Elections/Trinity and Greensboro.”
Faircloth voted in favor on the House floor. And in the other chamber, “yes” votes came from Republican state Sens. Rick Gunn, who now represents parts of eastern Guilford and Alamance counties, and Jerry Tillman, who represents parts of southern Guilford and Randolph counties.
Current Guilford legislators voting against the measure four years ago in their respective chambers were state Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Greensboro, and Hardister and Harrison.