Cobb Board of Education hires firm to assist in redrawing of political maps

Aug. 21—In a party-line vote Thursday night, the Cobb Board of Education hired law firm Taylor English Duma to assist in its redrawing of district lines.

Board Democrats voted to reject Taylor English's hiring, saying it could not be trusted to draw nonpartisan maps. Board member Charisse Davis raised objections over former Republican state Rep. Earl Ehrhart's affiliation with the firm.

Ehrhart is the CEO of Taylor English Decisions, the company's consulting arm. His wife is state Rep. Ginny Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs.

Republican Board Chair Randy Scamihorn, who had suggested the district hire Taylor English, said he'd chosen the firm because he thought it could conduct the politically-fraught act of drawing district lines in a nonpartisan manner. Past clients of the firm include both Democrats and Republicans, he said.

Political lines are redrawn every 10 years, after collection of census data.

At the local level, governing bodies like the Cobb Board of Commissioners and Cobb school board will get first crack at drawing a map with new district or post boundaries. Their map can then be sent to the Cobb County Legislative Delegation for modification and/or approval. The delegation can choose to use local bodies' maps as a framework and adjust or draw their own. From there, the map is assigned to committees in the state House and Senate. In the end, the full General Assembly and Gov. Brian Kemp have final say on newly drawn maps.

The process, called redistricting or reapportionment, is a closely-watched affair, as political observers say the reigning political majority typically draws district lines to its own benefit.

Cobb school board member Charisse Davis said Thursday that was exactly what would happen were the board to hire Taylor English.

"Representative Ehrhart had maps rejected by a federal judge because of them being racially biased, and that's a huge problem," Davis said. "This is really concerning, if someone who's leading the organization had maps thrown out because they were biased. I mean, that's what we're here for, to ensure that we have fair maps, and so this is not going to be that."

Ehrhart denied that allegation Friday.

Moments after the vote, the Cobb County Democratic Committee shared on social media a link to Ehrhart's biography on Taylor English Decisions' website.

"This may explain why Cobb School Board (Chair) Randy Scamihorn was so intent on voting to approve Taylor English as a re-apportionment consultant without transparent discussion or competitive search," the committee wrote.

But the company the board ultimately hired Thursday — as described by Scamihorn — was Taylor English Duma LLP, a law firm affiliated with the Ehrhart-led Taylor English Decisions. Ehrhart on Friday said Taylor English Decisions had not been hired by the Cobb School District to handle reapportionment.

"It was the company here in Atlanta. I know they're a huge firm, they have 200 employees right here in Atlanta," Scamihorn told the MDJ after the meeting.

And a fact sheet Scamihorn had given other board members mentioned Taylor English Duma attorney Bryan Tyson. Tyson will serve as the firm's lead in helping the Cobb school board redraw district lines, Scamihorn said.

According to the firm's website, Tyson "advised the Georgia General Assembly during its 2011 redistricting process and was appointed as special assistant attorney general to assist in securing federal approval of all three redistricting plans adopted by the legislature during its special session." He is also listed on the website as a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association.

In any case, Ehrhart's affiliation was a moot point, Scamihorn said during Thursday's meeting. The firm could be trusted to draw fair maps given its past work for clients of all political stripes, he said. His fact sheet noted that past Taylor English clients included Stonecrest Councilwoman Jazzmin Cobble, a Democrat, and the Gwinnett County elections board.

Board Democrats had other issues with the proposal, including the fact the board hadn't considered multiple firms. And the Cobb County Democratic Committee criticized Scamihorn for not having obtained a cost estimate before the vote.

Scamihorn told the MDJ he would ask the board to take another vote on the matter should Taylor English estimate the cost of its services would exceed $200,000.