As Mayor Alvin Brown announces he will neither sign nor veto a bill moving the Duval County Supervisor of Elections Center from Gateway Mall to a Northside office park, a federal judge heard arguments Tuesday in a legal challenge to the move.
On Monday, Gateway Retail Center LLC filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court in Jacksonville asking for an injunction to prevent the city from signing a lease with the Imeson Center on the Northside.
Among the claims in the lawsuit, "...the City Council unlawfully voted to move the SOE Center from its current location in retaliation against Gateway because the Gateway Lease allows greater African American participation in the election process whereas the Imeson Lease effectively stifles African American participation due to its location."
The court filing goes on to say the council's decision "was in retaliation against Gateway, racially motivated, and effectively prohibits and chills political free speech."
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown has been vocal since before the City Council vote, saying moving the elections center out of Gateway, saying: "This is an example of voter suppression and disfranchisement of African American voters."
Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland, who was hoping to move into the new space next month, says the claims in the lawsuit groundless He says the center's main role is as a warehouse and call center, and this move will in no way diminish the ability of blacks living in and around Gateway to vote.
"I am fully committed to having early voting in the Gateway community... rent space there at Gateway, or we have two public buildings, one within site of Gateway," Holland said. "So, there will be voting there. The community is not going to lose early voting in future elections."
Corrine Brown told Channel 4: "I don't trust what Jerry Holland says."
At Tuesday's emergency hearing on the legal challenge, U.S. District Judge Thomas Corrigan said there's no hurry to rule on the lawsuit. The next hearing will be held Sept. 23.
Holland says delays making this move could create a problem for having everything in place for next year's elections.
"Depending again on how long it could take on the court decision, it could easily impact us for the next election," Holland said. "That is something we will be watching very closely."
City Council's vote to move the center came after months of discussions about possible options.
Holland wanted to move his office from Gateway, which has had maintenance and operational issues for years. The center went through a foreclosure and change of ownership last year.
Holland told the council he could save $3 million by signing a 10-year lease at Imeson.
Mayor Brown recommended the center remain at Gateway under the terms of a new, reduced lease that included building improvements, but council sided with Holland.
In a letter to Council President Bill Gulliford on Tuesday, Brown wrote, "While people on both side of the issue have raised numerous arguments to advance their positions on the SOE location, my administration has remained focused on the impact for taxpayers. I will not sign this legislation because I stand behind (Public Works Driector Jim) Robinson's recommendation. But now that City Council has clearly expressed its view, we should move forward."