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Calhoun County attorney responds to column on lawsuit, at-large voting

To the editor,

This letter is written in response to the column featured in your paper regarding “at large elections” in Calhoun County and the lawsuit filed by James Pruette in Federal Court seeking to mandate at large elections in Calhoun County. Mr. Pruette appeared before the Board with an ultimatum. The ultimatum was that the either the County Commission order a return to “at large elections” or else he was going to file suit the next day to require it. The Board, acting on advice of counsel, declined to follow his edict, but did attempt to open a dialogue regarding the issue.

Rather than continue the dialogue, Mr. Pruette filed his suit the following week in Federal Court. A motion to dismiss the claim of Mr. Pruette was timely filed. The complaint and the motion to dismiss are public records and available, should you chose to access them. As was discussed at the County Commission meeting, to order “at large elections” would fly in the face of an existing final judgment entered by the same court in which Mr. Pruette filed his claim. It is not as simple as ordering “at large elections”. In order to avoid a contempt charge and avoid the sanctions of undefendable attorney fees claims, relief from the prior judgment must be obtained, prior to any attempt to revert to at large elections. The process to obtain the relief from the judgment is costly, involving the retention of expert witnesses and the addition of federal civil rights counsel. In the event the claim is not successful, the payment of the costs and fees of the opposing party will likely be in the six figure range. It is also easy to envision the costs for the county’s attorney and expert fees will also be in the six figure range.

Based upon conversations with those involved in the same matter in Liberty County over two decades ago, the Plaintiff’s attorney fees and costs were in excess of $1,000,000. Had Liberty County failed, they would have been bankrupt.

The reasons why Liberty County was successful originally would make a great law review article, but can be summed up in two reasons. First, during the time the matter was pending, two minority candidates were elected under the at large system and second, the minority population in Liberty County was not sufficiently large and compact enough to form a successful single member block. Neither of those factors exists in Calhoun County and would likely spell the death knell of any attempt to obtain relief from the existing judgment.

In these troubling economic times for citizens and local governments alike, it seems the Calhoun County Board of County Commissioners took the prudent track to avoid the cost and expense of a Don Quixotesque attempt to seek relief from the existing federal court order. Rather than being subjected to ridicule, they should be applauded for their foresight and their stewardship of taxpayers’ funds.

H. Matthew Fuqua

County Attorney for Calhoun County Board of County Commissioners

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