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Commissioners OK new district map, rescind previous proposal following heated meetings
commissioners
Forsyth County Board of Commissioners from left, Todd Levent, Molly Cooper, Chairwoman Cindy Jones Mills, Laura Semanson and Alfred John.

County district lines may be changing following a pair of heated Forsyth County Board of Commissioners meetings this week.

During a work session on Tuesday, Jan. 25, commissioners voted to approve recommendations for new boundary lines for the county’s five commission districts after previously approving a different proposal for the lines in October. The recommendation will next go to state lawmakers, who can make changes to the proposal, for approval.

According to the recommendation approved by commissioners Tuesday, the western half of current District 4 would be absorbed by District 1, District 4 would take most of Lake Lanier, District 5 would extend to McGinnis Ferry Road and District 2 would extend upwards to include the city of Cumming.

Following Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners held a special-called meeting on Friday, Jan. 28 where they voted to rescind the approval of October’s recommendation.

Chairman and District 2 Commissioner Alfred John said “it’s not me asking [county staff] to create [new] maps, it’s the legislature or the local delegation that asked.”

Both approval of the new map and rescission of the previous map were passed with a 4-1 vote with District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills opposed.

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Forsyth County Commission Districts
Above map shows the current district lines.

Details of work session on Tuesday, Jan. 25

County Attorney Ken Jarrard addressed the board during the work session on Tuesday, Jan. 25, presenting commissioners with the possibility of sending a letter to state delegation to consider a revised district map.

According to the U.S. Constitution, a population recount must be done every 10 years and lines must be redrawn according to the U.S. Census. Criteria is then provided by local delegation for maps based on population and communities of interest.

Assistant County Manager Brandon Kenney said the new proposal was drawn with certain parameters in mind.

“The criteria we were provided [by the local delegation] was to have two districts in the north and to have a minimum of three districts within the city limits and at least two districts east to west,” Kenney said. “And then the final criteria was to keep communities of interest together where possible.”

All districts must also be drawn to have populations with 1% of each other.

If approved, the city of Cumming, which currently lies entirely in District 1 would then be part of Districts 1, 2, 5 and 4.

During discussion, there was debate among commission members about the current proposal and the one from October.

District 1 Commissioner Molly Cooper said she was “not pleased with what we voted on in the past,” referencing the Oct. 12 work session.

“I regret that vote, quite frankly,” Cooper said.

During the meeting on Tuesday, John said that he “[shared] Commissioner Cooper’s sentiments.”

“I think that was a blind spot for me as well,” John said. “I didn’t fully understand or appreciate the process, so when it was brought to our attention that there might be alternate methods or means to … accomplish redistricting, then I genuinely was curious.”

John said he was looking at “what’s the future of Forsyth County” over the next 10 years and how to “protect our residents over the long-term.”

Mills said that she’d had “a ton of citizens reach out to” her asking to be “made abreast of what happened historically, what we discussed or talked about before [in October].”

Mills asked board chairman and John if she could play a portion of the meeting from October to “refresh our memory.”

“I think it’s very pertinent to what we’re about to discuss,” Mills said.

John instead asked Mills to summarize the video rather than play it because he wasn’t “sure if the video [was] going to add anything substantive to the conversation.”

Mills said she recalled that other commissioners “liked the map, they … thought it was a good clean map, that there was no gerrymandering done on the map.”

According to FCN coverage of the work session in October, District 5 Commissioner Laura Semanson and District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent said they were “OK with this map,” and Semanson said she liked that every commissioner would “have skin in the game when it comes to [Ga. 400].”

On Tuesday, Mills, who said through the meetings she preferred the first proposal to the one that was eventually approved, said she was concerned with the transparency of the issue, saying she felt “really sorry for our citizens.”

“For the most part I feel like we are all about transparency,” Mills said. “And that we have, as a board, have always stood for [transparency]. We’ll have an extra public hearing … when in doubt, and we like to engage people to be a part of the system instead of shutting them out.”

Mills recognized that considering and approving district maps was a state process and had a specific timeframe that the board must follow but said that she believed the process should have “started earlier.”

“If this process had started earlier, if it had started when we sent the maps in October, we could have had public hearings or we could have had town hall meetings or we could have had public comment,” she said.

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district map 2022
Above map from the October 2021 meeting. This map was approved in October and then rescinded by county commissioners on Friday, Jan. 28. Photo courtesy Forsyth County government.
district map 2022
Above map is the proposed district map from the Board of Commissioners' work session. According to county staff, on the legend of the map, District 5 should be purple, and District 2 should be green. Photo courtesy Forsyth County government.

Mills also expressed concern about District 4’s lines, asking “would it be enough of me to give up … north Forsyth [on the lake] and be able to keep the rest of [District 4].”

She also was concerned about keeping the Eagle Point Landfill off Old Federal Road in District 4.

“I don’t want to send a message to the people that I’ve represented in northwest Forsyth that I don’t care about them because I do,” she said.

District 5 Commissioner Laura Semanson said that while each commissioner represents an individual district, they have “an equal voice in at least … the final decision of what happens in every district.”

“I’ve tried to approach my role that way,” Semanson said. “I think that by having good relationships with other commissioners, you can still serve people you’ve historically served…. The communities will survive.”

Semanson said that by “making sure that there’s representation … it’s going to magnify that [resident] voice,” especially with more commissioners with stakes in the city of Cumming.

The new map would mean that once the boundary changes, Semanson would be in District 2 rather than District 5. Jarrard clarified in an email to the Forsyth County News on Friday that Semanson would,  if similar language is adopted as the last round of redistricting, be allowed to complete her term, which ends in 2024.

After the discussion, Levent made a motion to send the revision to the county’s state delegation on a time-sensitive basis. The motion carried with a 4-1 vote with Mills opposed.

Following the vote, Mills asked if the two other maps created by county staff could be presented so that the public could see the other possibilities for district lines.

“[The two maps] affect [the public],” Mills said. “I mean, [the public] came to the meeting to see the maps. I know that they did, and some of them live in y’all’s districts.”

John denied the request, stating that “the vote’s been taken, let’s move forward.”

Details of the special called meeting Friday, Jan. 28

After Tuesday’s meeting, a special-called meeting was held on Friday, Jan. 28 to discuss rescinding the map approved in October.

During Friday’s meeting, Mills alleged that she had not been allowed to view maps or make proposals ahead of the work session on Tuesday and reiterated issues with not having video or pictures shown for the previous meeting.

“I, in the nine years I’ve been on the board, have never seen a fellow commissioner treated the way I was treated,” Mills said. “Even at the worst of times, when we have very much disliked each other, we have given respect to each other and shown maps, we have honored each other’s requests.

At the time, Mills said that she had not been allowed to show a map proposal she preferred at Tuesday’s meeting and had been “repeatedly asked about the last meeting why when I wanted to do a video and put it up, why I wasn’t allowed to.”

“I even called the county attorney and asked [if] that [was] proper procedure the way I was treated at that meeting [on Tuesday] … and I was told no, that it wasn’t,” Mills said.

Mills said that her constituents deserved “the same respect as the other citizens in the county.”

“I was elected just like everybody else was, and my citizens deserve to be treated fairly,” she said. “This map was not set down and gone over with me. All of you made changes to it. You did not come to me … you did not talk to me.”

On Friday, District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent disputed some of her claims, saying that other commissioners had requested the map that was approved be shown during Tuesday’s discussion.

“If any other commissioner wanted to bring a map forward and have it to staff in a timely matter before the meeting, it would have been put up, at least I hope it would have been put up,” Levent said.

Jarrard said that playing a video or putting up maps were considered “internal board decisions of how the meeting is going to be conducted.”

He said that he believed there was a “dispute as to whether or not these would be allowed to occur” and that John asked for Mills to summarize the video.

However, if the dispute “had not resolved,” he said that “a motion would have been needed either to have allowed it or to have not allowed it and that is the way the board collectively decides these [sorts] of procedural issues about how their meetings will be conducted.”

“It didn’t get to that point, but that’s what I’m suggesting to you could have happened,” Jarrard said.

The boundaries will next be discussed at a meeting of the Forsyth County Board of Education on Monday, Jan. 31 as school board districts follow commission lines.