By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield shut down on Monday -- at least temporarily -- former school board member Norreese Haynes' bid to stop a special election to replace him on the board.
Benefield issued an order denying Haynes' request to include the county's board of elections as an indispensable party to Haynes' suit. She also granted a motion by attorneys for five former and current school board members to dismiss Haynes' case against his former colleagues.
"The court finds that the petitioner [Haynes] was not entitled to a judicial hearing prior to a determination of a vacancy on the Clayton County Board of Education," said Benefield in her order. "Moreover, this court finds that the petitioner has no right ... to appeal the Clayton County Board of Education's decision to remove the petitioner as a member."
Haynes has been fighting to keep his seat since March. Benefield's order on Monday allows the board of elections to proceed with a July 15 special election which will fill the board's vacant District 8 seat.
The former District 8 representative was removed from office on March 3, when board members David Ashe, Yolanda Everett, Rod Johnson, and former board members, Ericka Davis and Eddie White, voted to declare the seat vacant. The board members contended that their decision was based on a Clayton County Police investigation, which determined that Haynes had been living in an apartment in Marietta, not in Clayton County.
An investigator from Secretary of State Karen Handle's office, however, later looked into the residency status of the entire board in March and April, and determined that all -- including Haynes -- lived in their respective districts.
Attorneys for Haynes and the five school board members could not be reached for comment. Haynes can still appeal Benefield's decision to the State Court of Appeals.
Jack Hancock, one of the attorneys for the board of elections, said he was pleased when his office called and told him about Benefield's decision. "I don't think we could have asked for anything better," he said in a telephone interview. "She made the right decision, and hopefully, this is the end of the issue."
Benefield's order was based on the argument that Haynes' attorneys sued the wrong people by initially going after the board of education, and then waited too long to request the addition of the board of elections as an indispensable party.
Attorneys for the board of elections argued that Haynes only had 10 days to request the temporary restraining order after elections director, Annie Bright, notified the former board member about the special election. Bright sent a letter to Haynes, notifying him about the special election in mid-March. His attorneys did not seek to add the board of elections until May 21.
Haynes' attorneys argued they could file the request for the restraining order any time before the special election took place. They also argued that the five members of the school board were parties in the case, because the board of elections could not call for a special election, if the school board did not declare the seat vacant.
"The petitioner has failed to provide any argument in support of his motion to join new parties, thus the court finds that he has not satisfied his burden in establishing lack of prejudice or excusable delay," Benefield wrote in her order.
Hancock explained that state law outlines the procedures which attorneys must follow when they want to add a party to a lawsuit. "When you seek to add a party, even when time is not an issue, you must provide a reason why you didn't add them in the first place," Hancock said.
The judge's decision lifts a lingering cloud of uncertainty, which had been hanging over the special election. Alieka Anderson and Ed Rigdon are vying to replace Haynes as the District 8 representative on the board. The winner of the special election will take office the day after the election.
On Monday, Anderson and Rigdon were ecstatic to hear about Benefield's decision. "I think putting Norreese Haynes back on the board would have been a step backwards for this county ... The voters of District 8 have been given an opportunity to move in a new direction," said Rigdon.
"I feel like it's time for us to move forward and get a whole board elected which will serve the citizens and the children of Clayton County," Anderson said. "This represents a change in our county,where we are entering a period of refocusing our priorities and putting the kids first again."
The residents of District 8 will have an opportunity to question Anderson and Rigdon about their goals for the school system at a meet-and-greet hosted by the Concerned Citizens of Clayton County (C4) on Thursday, from 6:30 p.m., to 8:30 p.m., at the Carl Rhodenizer Recreation Center, located at 3499 Rex Road, in Rex.