Ga. voting law controversy follows overhaul’s point man to Washington

Protesters lined up Monday outside the Washington City Council chambers to call for the firing of GOP Rep. Barry Fleming as the city attorney for his role in writing controversial new state voting laws. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

WASHINGTON – The Washington City Council voted Monday to ask state Rep. Barry Fleming to resign his city attorney job for his key role in passing sweeping voting legislation that detractors say will disenfranchise Black people and other minorities.

Tensions flared throughout Monday night’s meeting, when four city councilmen said they no longer wanted Fleming to represent the city in legal matters after his role in ushering controversial new state voting laws through his special legislative election committee reverberated in his communities.

Fleming, who is white, has served for 16 years as legal counsel for Washington, a city of roughly 4,000 residents that is about 110 miles east of downtown Atlanta where lawmakers just wrapped up this year’s session. About 60% of its residents are Black.

Before the 4-2 vote asking Fleming to step down voluntarily, Mayor Bill DeGolian said the City Council did not have the authority to fire him since Fleming did not neglect his duties, commit a crime or break an immorality clause.

But that didn’t sit well with City Councilman Maceo Mahoney, as a dispute emerged over whether Fleming, whose Augusta-based law firm the council approved a one-year contract with in January, could still be let go or have his contract rescinded. 

Mahoney was one of the three Black council members to vote in favor of the resignation.

“I think the people deserve answers,” he said after the nearly three-hour meeting abruptly ended. “This is their tax dollars that we’re spending so they should have a say on who they want their representation to be.

“(Fleming) had an opportunity to pass on this bill and let somebody else sponsor it but you chose to lead it, and you represent minority municipalities all across Georgia,” Mahoney said.

DeGolian said following the meeting that Fleming has been an upstanding attorney for the city, but that he’ll have a formal city letter sent to Fleming asking for his resignation.

“He should have time to think about what he wants to do, but it’s voluntary, it’s not mandatory,” the mayor said. “We have no grounds to fire, but he can resign if we asked him to.”

The conflict represents part of the growing fallout over new voting laws that Democrats brand as Jim Crow 2.0, while Republicans argue the changes restore confidence in the state’s election system following the contentious Nov. 3 presidential election. 

This is the second time Fleming’s role as a local government attorney has been on the line in recent weeks. In March, Fleming stopped representing the majority Black population of Hancock County after the County Commission voted to cut ties with him.

And several voting groups say they plan to protest against him remaining the Burke County attorney at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

Both Fleming and the mayor declined to say how much he makes as Washington’s city attorney. The Nation recently reported his firm’s legal tabs from Hancock County and Washington totaled $382,000 the last three years.

Fleming also serves as attorney for the east Georgia cities of Harlem, Lincolnton, and Greensboro and the counties of Putnam, Glascock, according to Fleming’s law firm’s website.

Rep. Barry Fleming defends his support of an overhaul of Georgia voting laws during Monday’s Washington City Council meeting where officials voted 4-2 to ask for his resignation. Stanley Dunlap/ Georgia Recorder

“I would have never voted for a bill that I thought would hurt anybody from voting,” Fleming said Monday.

Republican lawmakers have praised the legislation as expanding access to early voting for the majority of Georgia’s 159 counties, providing more security measures to absentee ballot drop boxes, and protecting the state’s vote-by-mail law.

But opponents have accused Republicans of including controversial provisions in an attempt to appease those who say a rigged election caused then-President Donald Trump to lose to Democrat Joe Biden by fewer than 12,000 votes in Georgia. Trump continues to cast doubt on the validity of the 2020 election results. 

Since signing the Election Integrity Act into law on March 25, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and fellow party-members have closed ranks against Major League Baseball’s decision to move the All-Star Game out of Georgia to protest the voting changes. 

Meanwhile, the GOP also continues to defend the new rules against corporations like Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola for claiming it restricts access to the ballot box.

On Monday, Fleming said he expects the new rules to withstand a handful of federal lawsuits challenging provisions that add criminal penalties for third parties passing out water and food to voters standing in line, the new absentee ID requirement, and more. 

But earlier on Monday, the Rev. Lance Pitts, president of the Wilkes County NAACP, joined protesters outside the Washington City Council chamber calling for Fleming’s termination.

Pitts said the legislation will attempt to suppress votes despite recounts confirming the presidential election results and GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger calling it the most secure election in Georgia’s history.

“This is an assault on the citizens,” Pitts said. “Bills like this are being generated in order to attack Democratic votes, to block Democratic votes, and we must stand united against it.”

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.