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The city of Maryland apologizes and offers redress to resolve voting rights dispute

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The small town of Federalsburg on Maryland's Eastern Shore settled a legal dispute over federal voting rights on Wednesday, agreeing to apologize for its history of racism, committing to actions that recognize Black contributions to the city and reconciliation support financially.

The city will also pay $260,000 through 2030 for legal fees to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which filed the lawsuit. The organization hailed the agreement as a landmark victory.

“Through the city’s public acknowledgment of its history of past racism, through genuine expressions of regret, and through a commitment to reparations to bring healing to a community that has endured two centuries of racist oppression, officials and residents are seizing this opportunity “To move beyond the city’s past injustices and look forward to a new day of justice in Federalsburg,” Deborah A. Jeon, legal director of the ACLU of Maryland, said in a statement.

Last year, the 200-year-old city, with a population of 43 percent black, elected its first black representatives after changes to the electoral system under judge supervision.

But the financial component of the agreement, negotiated down from $500,000, has drawn some criticism in Federalsburg, including from one of the recently elected black officials, who believes it would cost a city whose annual operating budget is about $2.8 million million US dollars, important funds are being withdrawn.

As part of the agreement signed by Federalsburg Mayor Kimberly Abner, the city of about 2,800 residents in Caroline County apologized and said it “officially acknowledges its responsibility and expresses deep regret for actions and inactions that have resulted in racial discrimination and “Contribute to the exclusion of black residents.” This included the use of an electoral system that prevented a black person from holding a position on the city council for over 200 years. As city officials, we accept moral responsibility for the harm these actions have caused to Black residents, their families and ancestors before them.”

In its apology, the city said: “We want to put an end to this shameful story and begin a process of reconciliation among all residents of the city.”

The historic settlement — the first of its kind in a Maryland voting rights case, according to the ACLU of Maryland — was reached through mediation under the supervision of U.S. Magistrate Judge Erin Aslan.

“The mediation discussions that led to the settlement provided Federalsburg’s black residents and the city’s leadership the opportunity to move forward with greater understanding, unity and harmony that are critical to the city’s future success and strength,” Willie Woods, President of the Caroline County NAACP said in a statement.

The agreement resolves a voting rights lawsuit filed last year by the Caroline County NAACP, the Caucus of African American Leaders, and Caroline County residents that said Federalsburg's long-standing use of “a racist facial expression” created a “white stranglehold.” to local power “upholds a diluting at-large, staggered electoral system rather than a racially fair system that would provide Black Federalsburg voters an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.”

The effort to change Federalsburg's election system began in 2022 with the ACLU's routine review of whether census data matches representation in Maryland communities. “When we saw that the city was half black and there was no black representation, we reached out to the community and asked, 'What did you think about that?' Jeon told The Washington Post last year.

The lawsuit alleged that the city's election system violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits practices that give racial minorities “less opportunity than other voters to participate in the political process and to elect their representatives.” your choice.”

In addition to the apology, Federalsburg pledged to take further steps, including placing a plaque at City Hall recognizing the voting rights case; Installation of a photo exhibition with black donations for Federalsburg; Erecting a historical marker in Brooklyn's black community to celebrate the contributions of its residents and their ancestors; renaming Gerardi Boulevard to Brooklyn Avenue; and issuing a proclamation declaring September 26 of each year as Voting Rights Day in recognition of the historic victory of Black voters on that day last year.

The agreement also called for the formation of a unity committee to focus on community engagement in future elections and the establishment of an annual multicultural celebration.

Last summer, city leaders, under a judge's supervision to create a plan that wouldn't violate the Voting Rights Act, changed the election from at-large representation to a two-district system. The plan called for two of the four city council members to represent the predominantly black part of the city.

Brandy James, who became one of the first two black elected officials in Federalsburg when she and Darlene Hammond were elected to the City Council last September, said she supported the non-financial aspects of the settlement but was disappointed by the $260,000 in legal fees awarded U.S. dollar.

“I don't agree with the monetary part because we all know Federalsburg is trying to get out of the debt hole. However, I respect the court’s decision,” James said in an interview. “I think everyone knew there was a lawsuit, but I don’t think they knew there was going to be such a large amount of money associated with that lawsuit.”

Hammond said she could not comment on the settlement because she is a plaintiff.

Abner, the city's mayor, did not respond to requests for comment on the agreement. The other two council members also did not respond to requests for comment.

“The residents of Federalsburg tried to get the city to do the right thing without having to file a lawsuit,” Nehemiah Bester, a spokesman for the ACLU of Maryland, said in an email. “Legal action should not have been necessary, but it was.”

The city must submit its official written apology by May 1. It will be framed and permanently displayed in Federalsburg City Hall.