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Federal court takes up state nepotism law
Statute kept Gainesville school board member from seeking re-election in 2009
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A federal appeals court is considering a challenge to a state nepotism law that barred former Gainesville school board member Kelvin Simmons from seeking re-election in 2009.

A federal judge struck down the law in April, but state officials asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate the rules Thursday. The three-judge panel did not immediately issue a ruling.

Simmons targeted the law last year, which prevents immediate relatives of school administrators from running for election to a local school board.

The law went into effect July 1, 2009. Simmons was planning to run for re-election later that year, Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said.

Simmons, who had served on the school board since 1991, is married to Gainesville Middle School Principal Audrey Simmons.

After local officials determined Simmons' name could not appear on a ballot, Simmons joined Bartow County school board member Lamar Grizzle in filing a suit challenging the law. Grizzle's daughter is an assistant principal.

The two claimed school officials already are subject to conflict-of-interest rules that aim to prevent favoritism to relatives. Besides, they said, the rule is uneven because they don't apply to school board members who have friends or extended family in administrative positions.

After a judge struck down the law, Georgia attorneys filed the appeal. They contended that state lawmakers have the right to adopt strict rules to protect the public.

"There's a legitimate state interest in combating nepotism," said Ann Brumbaugh, an assistant state attorney. "The legislature has the prerogative to write its statutes, and just because it's written a certain way doesn't make it unconstitutional."

Peter Olson, an attorney for the board members, said there are already checks and balances in the system to prevent favoritism. Lawmakers have adopted strict conflict-of-interest policies, and many local school boards have done so as well. And if nothing else, he said, there's always the power of the ballot box.

"That's what elections are for," he said. "If people feel like officials are acting unfavorably, they can throw them out of the office."

Dyer said she doesn't know if Simmons will try to seek office again. Delores Diaz won his school board seat in November 2009 when he was disqualified from the ballot.

"Anyone can run for school board as long as they meet the requirements of state law and the requirements to run," Dyer said.

Simmons did not return calls from The Times on Friday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

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