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Cityhood along The Corridor: A referendum is a terrible thing to waste

Lakeside City Alliance (LCA) and later, City of Briarcliff Initiative (COBI) and Tucker 2014 were formed to evaluate whether the public wanted an opportunity to vote to form a city(ies) in the “North Central DeKalb” corridor. Within six weeks of LCA’s first public meeting, State Senator Fran Millar filed a bill for a City of Lakeside that set a timetable to hold a local referendum. Later, COBI and Tucker were included in bills deemed acceptable by lawmakers, but differing in form and substance, reflective of a poorly defined legislative process. By May, 2013, the first recognized Battle of Boundaries (a veritable constitutional challenge) of any of the “cityhood” referendums was engaged—as originally predicted on this blog. For the first time in the cityhood movement, a referendum is being attempted to simultaneously start a new city--and to FORM and GATHER a community.

For nearly a year now, our corridor’s sometime adjacent/sometime overlapping communities, a “whole” of indefinite dimensions (historically and geographically), has been exposed to disjointed cityhood advocacy and fact finding. What might be lost on many people whether they are acquainted with these cityhood proceedings or not is the broader meaning of the ensuing confusion. That is, like no other cityhood referendum before, the disorder needlessly adds social uncertainties to a debate that has traditionally been limited to practical issues about new city formation. The discomfort has been evident at public meetings and at the street level so we might take our “cues for caution” from demurring legislators which have never exhibited such trepidation before.

What got us to the edge of a precipice? We have always had the option to take more time to fully develop a community definition before launching into a risky referendum. We still do—and are in a better position to do it now given that the leadership of the advocacy groups has moved us down the road a bit. However, their position(s) have been to strike while the iron is hot—after a string of cityhood victories, bad DeKalb press, an accommodating legal process. On the flip side, we’ve also been warned against “waiting”; maybe DeKalb would form a city and foreclose on our options, Democrat legislators were countering with cosmetic legislation, etc. However, whether with heavy enthusiasm or blind faith, advocates can misread tea leaves—or seem to. Brookhaven was perceived as adding to the momentum of cityhood here, but the close vote there, community disassociation and later, apparent governing issues perhaps should have signaled that caution, not zeal was in order as the movement crossed I-85.

Our cityhood advocacy groups are simply following legislative rules that essentially “invite” proposals. They have stated that you play by the rules given to you. Unfortunately, those rules may have done the groups (and legislators) an unforeseen disservice. Unlike other states, our Battle of the Boundaries stems directly from a lack of legislative regulation documenting community representation. In some states, there are specific pre-referendum rules confirming the appropriate boundaries for a city, balancing evidence of “social feasibility” with “economic feasibility”. In some cases, the entire process revolves around a hand-carried petition process that asks whether a resident wants to hold a referendum. That tends to legitimize legislative action and the boundaries themselves.

Bottom line right now? We don’t have a clue as to how a public would vote—and the legislature never holds referendums without confidence. Did Sandy Springs and Dunwoody know the public pulse ahead of their vote—and did legislators? You bet they did, the areas were of one mind, one map and had plenty of time to discuss it—and sponsors hailed from those communities (read: ours doesn’t). They were rewarded with over 85% pluralities and decent turnout—which add up to something even more important—a governing mandate—a strong foundation the cities can stand on when the chips are down. The key: uncertainty is the primary enemy of any referendum, being a “yes or no” vote. Unlike the choice between candidates, a referendum vote can “blackballed”—you don’t need many reasons to press “no” particularly if you mistakenly think the choice will come around again.

Indeed, lawmakers have complex reasons for not wading into uncertain waters—so perhaps our cityhood advocacy groups should consider their own. One thing, legislators know a loss at the polls would be a loss of credibility for sponsors and possibly for all. For instance, it was just announced that the “Independent Schools bill”, restricted to new cities and adjacent communities (read: North Metro Republican) was pulled by its Dunwoody sponsor, Tom Taylor. Representative Taylor stated the reason—statewide legislators are now concerned about tampering with local issues, particularly DeKalb’s. How does that fit in with a decision on North Central DeKalb cityhood? Also, LCA, COBI and T2014 have their own risks; with the public, the legislature and although it didn’t seem necessary this time, county leaders will not be able to be ignored in the future. New “corridor” players may be required if a referendum loses this year.

Can questions be resolved in the minds of voters that have been disengaged to date? Many would say that has been done in three-month referendum campaign for the other new cities. However, to put the rationale for a referendum into perspective, consider the risks of defeat when many people are still lethargic at best. To borrow from a one-time United Negro College Fund slogan relating to capable students’ financial prospects, “A referendum is a terrible thing to waste”.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Tom Doolittle March 02, 2014 at 02:47 PM
"Local control"--I love that--stuff just kills me. I still haven't heard precisely what people think they "control". The corollary to having your neighbor to call on when you want to lobby or complain is: (1) he knows what's best for you, its all above your pay grade; (2) if you're neighbor is doing something for you, he's probably screwing someone three miles away; (3) You authomatically trust this person, so when he screws you its even more dissappointing than with a town hall in Decatur.
lawson aldridge March 02, 2014 at 04:46 PM
No I do not believe "anyone" against a new city is in line with the Dekalb democrat machine. No city groups in Dekalb typically have a sprinkling of libertarians and older conservative Republicans among others. But the vast majority of anti -city folks are Dekalb Democrats and their political leaders in the county and state legislature. They have the most to lose and will do pretty much anything to hold on to that power. Republicans may have something to gain if their city leaders are Republican and can deliver the Promised goods of nominally lower taxes and exponentially better service delivery. The local races are non-partisan so the Republican brand doesn't get the recognition like it would if they were able to claim party affiliation as in county races. On balance the Dekalb democrat machine has vastly more to lose than Republicans have to gain. It is the citizens who gain most when a well run city gains success. Sadly, leading Democrats in Dekalb rather prefer to maintain power than allow the potential for this glaring success.
Tom Doolittle March 02, 2014 at 05:15 PM
Here's a tip--look at all of the Democrats that with a snap of fingers became Republicans. Mike Jacobs was one of those. Regardless of explanation for the masses to consume, the point is, power isn't with the office holder, power is endemic to the system. So given my explanation that I gave for the real definition of "corruption" in the water/wastewater finances--the source of which was arranging debt--the people that do that--and that they have been the source of Democrat power--see how easy it will be to turn and do business with new cities. Its' the same people corrupting all organizations with contrived opportuities and and solutions to contrived problems.
lawson aldridge March 02, 2014 at 06:05 PM
Yes and the other 99 percent of elected Democrats in Dekalb are still Dekalb Democrats trying to protect their power base by opposing any new cities.
Atlantakiwi March 02, 2014 at 08:06 PM
Truth - I am ITP but the motivation behind COBI and the people who started it are part of a group I would never support. One of the founders of COBI told me very loudly one evening that COBI was started to block the other cityhood movements- especially LCA - and "they would be damned before they would let another Republican city be established in DeKalb." I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of that statement and was certainly witness to the passion of it. I have talked to countless residents in Dunwoody and Brookhaven who are completely happy with their "city." I like the mayoral/manager/commission form of gov't. There is a lot of accountability there and the voters, I think, tend to pay closer attention to local politics when they personally know their elected officials. BTW - I'm not looking for local "control" as much as I'm looking for accountability. I'd also like for at least a reasonable portion of my quite healthy amount of tax dollars to be spent near where I live. I see no reason for our intersections, roads, parks, and schools to look like they do here but when you travel south it is quite apparent what our tax dollars are funding. The idea of a portion of our tax dollars staying in our "city" is very appealing to me.

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