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|Federal court could decide March elections|
A U.S. District Court judge could be the ultimate arbiter in a dispute over municipal elections in the city of Monroe.
Judge Robbie James could issue a ruling as early as next week on a lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of Monroe voter Byrd Minter and Monroe City Councilman Eddie Clark.
Minter and Clark sued the Louisiana Secretary of State, the Ouachita Parish Clerk of Court, and officials with the city of Monroe after learning that city council elections originally scheduled for March 24 would be delayed until November.
"The judge took everything under advisement and will render a decision next week," said Nanci Summersgill, city attorney for Monroe. "The City has no objection to whatever he tells us to do."
At issue in the case are a series of missed deadlines, contradictory instructions and a host of past and potential violations of the city's Home Rule charter.
Every ten years, the city must redraw its city council districts to reflect shifts in population, as reflected by the U.S. Census.
The city's charter spells out a timetable in which those changes have to be made and submitted to the Louisiana Secretary of State.
To be in full compliance with the city charter, the city must submit the new district map to the Secretary of State "at least six months prior to the next election for council members."
That placed the city's deadline in October. However, the city missed that deadline, which placed it in violation of the charter.
Meanwhile, all redistricting plans in Monroe must also be pre-cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice to safeguard against racial gerrymandering.
That process can take anywhere from a few hours to several months.
A third complication came by way of the state elections code, which requires all new voting districts to be on file with the Secretary of State's office by "five days prior to the opening of the qualifying period."
That was Nov. 30, 2011.
Because the city had not received back its pre-clearance from the Justice Department, it missed that deadline, too.
Summersgill said at that point, when and if City Council elections would be held in March was "not up to the City."
How to proceed is spelled out in the City's charter and in state elections code, according to Summersgill.
"You follow the election laws of the state of Louisiana," Summersgill said. "That's what our charter says."
That state law, Revised Statute 18:19.41, essentially says that any elected body that misses its window for inclusion on the March ballot will hold elections in November.
However, according to Monroe attorney Paul Hurd, the Louisiana Constitution doesn't apply to the city of Monroe.
"That's what a home rule charter is," Hurd said.
Hurd represents Clark and Minter, the two individuals trying to force the state to place the election on the March 24 ballot.
According to Hurd, the state Constitution does not grant the Secretary of State the power to apply state elections laws to Monroe. Instead, it's up to the city of Monroe, Hurd said.
"Article 6 Section six of the Constitution says the state Legislature may pass no law affecting the organization of a home rule charter," Hurd said. "Elections of our officials are a part of organization."
Hurd said he wants the City Council to pass an emergency ordinance instructing the Secretary of State to include the City Council elections on the March 24 ballot.
To pass an emergency ordinance, the City Council would have to be called into an emergency session. The city charter provides three ways to do so.
Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo could call an emergency meeting of the City Council. So could City Council chairman Jay Marx. Or an emergency meeting could be called if a majority of the members request it.
Mayo could not be reached for comment.
Clark sent an email requesting the emergency session to City Council colleagues
but received only a single "no" reply as of Tuesday evening.
And Marx said he was not willing to call the special session.
"I have made one mistake, not knowing I was making a mistake," said Marx. "For me to go vote to intentionally do something that I'm aware of that the charter, an attorney general's opinion, and state law says we cannot do, I just can't do that. It's in the hands of the courts."
Marx has said previously that, as City Council chairman, it is his fault the city missed the deadline. Marx said he believes further action to undo that mistake would result in more violations of the charter.
"I, as chairman and as well as an individual, have no preference that this election be held in March or November," Marx said. "But it is important to me not to blatantly disregard the charter or the state law."
It was also unclear if an emergency ordinance passed by the City Council would have the desired effect.
According to Will Crawford, the lawyer representing the Secretary of State's office, the City Council could pass the emergency ordinance and deliver it to the Secretary of State. But that ordinance would still not change the March ballot.
"In that case, our response would be the same thing it is now," Crawford said. "Our hands are tied."
Crawford said it is not up to the Secretary of State to put an election on the ballot once a municipality misses the Nov. 30 deadline.
"It is not a discretionary act that was performed by the Secretary of State," Crawford said. "It's state law."
Crawford noted that the emergency ordinance would also create its own set of federal headaches for officials in Washington.
"That ordinance itself would also require pre-clearance by the Department of Justice," Clark said.
Hurd's lawsuit alleges violations of the federal voting rights act and the 14th Amendment.
In a court filing, Crawford argued that the case did not belong in federal court. Instead, the facts of the case are all in evidence and there are no issues of federal law to be settled, according to Crawford.
James's ruling in the case is expected to come early next week.