Utility bills prejudiced, Ga. suit says

A grassroots citizens group is suing the city of Douglas, Ga., for $163 million claiming it discriminates against black residents by systematically inflating their electricity usage to charge them more than whites for the utility service.

Douglas Energy Relief Association through its president Vera Freeman, founder Edward Freeman and two members assert the south Georgia city has violated the civil rights of African-Americans living in public housing complexes and other low-income housing since 2004, the lawsuit filed in federal court Aug. 18 shows.

The city, which provides electrical service in those neighborhoods, targeted blacks for exploitation by the driver's licenses or other photo identification that residents are required to supply when applying for the utility, the lawsuit states.

The city's computerized billing system was programmed to increase the amount of electricity measured by the utility meters at the homes of black residents, Vera Freeman told the Georgia Times-Union newspaper on Wednesday.

"It's red-lining. ... They used the picture ID to program the computer to inflate the kilowatt usage of the black residents," she said. "Black people living in public housing and mobile home trailers could have a utility bill of $400 or $500 a month while a white person next door would have one a whole lot less," Freeman said.

She said the association, established in 2004, has at least 900 members. Its website states the group operates with two or three faithful volunteers and no funding.

The group sued after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials on March 25, 2009, affirmed the agency's dismissal of a similar fair housing discrimination complaint the association filed against the city in 2004.

HUD dismissed the complaint after its investigation determined "no reasonable cause exists to believe that a discriminatory housing practice occurred."

The group cites HUD's ruling in the suit. The association welcomed the dismissal of the complaint and rejection of its appeal because that cleared the way to sue the city in federal court, Freeman said.

They are suing the city and 10 of its past and present mayors and City Commission members from 2004 until now. The mayors and commissioners are sued individually and in their official capacity.

"These allegations are completely ridiculous. ...The plaintiff is well aware there is no basis in fact, and no evidence to support this lawsuit. It is absolutely without merit," City Attorney Jerome Adams told the Times-Union.

Adams said HUD "completely cleared the city" after thoroughly investigating the association's claims through last year.

In addition, the city is incapable technologically of targeting people in the manner the association describes, he said.

"There is not a meter made that can detect the race, age or sex of the person living in the house. There is no software in existence that can do that, and we certainly do not have technology in our system," Adams said.

The sole purpose of the lawsuit, Adams said, is "to harass the city of Douglas."

Freeman acknowledged publicity was part of their goal.

"This town needs to be made an example of," she said.

The group is asking for $40.8 million in compensatory damages and $122.4 million in punitive damages, the lawsuit states.

Freeman said they also want to force the city out of the utility business.

No hearing dates have been set for the case, records showed.

teresa.stepzinski@jacksonville.com, (912) 264-0405

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