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 01, 2014 at 10:58 AM
This new article discusses divisions indirectly--but valuable in its "angle"--that the issue has progressed without any effort to measure preferences: Bill Torpe AJC writes (exclusive access today, probably hard copy yomorrow);;"Across an eight-mile swath of north-central DeKalb, however, the battle still rages, judging from opinions gathered at random from more than two-dozen residents."
Atlantakiwi March 01, 2014 at 11:31 AM
Good for the citizens that Sen. Millar went with his constituents and not the DeKalb delegation. That's who he works for, after all. At least he wasn't out in the hall while the vote was being taken saying he was "all a-dither" and not able to vote. This legislation started with the voters and will end with the voters. If you don't like it - vote no. At least you'll get the right to vote. Really very simple.
Tom Doolittle March 01, 2014 at 12:47 PM
Qwicki: Sen Millar (was) is what is called "ahead of his constituents"--and only slightly less so is LCA--the assumption being conditions can be controlled to ensure that constituents "follow". The fact is, you can't guarantee that when a leader leads, people will become their followers. (is it working out? yet to see). That's in contradistinction to "went with his constituents" (your term). Politicians generally don't risk getting "too far ahead of their constituents" for obvious reasons, unless they either are confused (wrong) about who they are--or have done the math and are comfortable with the risks. That would of course be tricky if he ends up with an opponent from this area of a different persuasion.
Jim Tackett March 01, 2014 at 02:53 PM
Atlantakiwi: the issue is that its not a fair vote. Someone just across the street might not be able to vote on something that would permanently split their shared community, because the map includes one but not the other. This is not a truly representative way to gauge a community's interest. Better to start with a map that includes an entire area, something both the Tucker and COBI maps have tried to address to the best of their capabilities.
Tom Doolittle March 01, 2014 at 03:14 PM
There are many things about typical referendums that really don't apply with creating new cities. If a close referendum is considered illigitimate by citizens that didn't vote--particularly if its a large majority of citizens, then a city has to govern with a weak mandate for a long time--and infact it can get weaker. A form of govt cannot possibly receive a representative vote at the 50%+1 level. If the legislature decided city formations as a representative body, it would require a 2/3 supermajority--and normally all representatives are present for the vote. A larger majority is really needed in a referendum that changes (or adds) a form of government in order to compensate for low turnout and the mechanics of funded referendum campaigns. The 54% win in Brookhaven was effectively carried by less than 15% of the voting roll voting "yes" due to a low turnout, particularly from select precincts that purposely were ignored by the campaign. "Sliding in for the win" may work for city formation, but spels toruble for governance.
Enuff Govt Already March 01, 2014 at 05:02 PM
This aint about local control. It's about the political power. The D'woody group is wresting it from the Decatur group. The Lakeside (N'lake ) creation will be expected to follow lock step behind D'woody. If you enjoyed the lecture by the Senator then you won't mind the meddling to follow.
Cheryl Miller March 01, 2014 at 07:06 PM
Atlkiwi: If Sen. Millar was going to sponsor a bill for the (singular) constituent who reportedly lives in his district, then he should have filed a bill for the creation of a city of Tucker.
lawson aldridge March 01, 2014 at 07:08 PM
Carter's cowardly "all a dither" statement is silly political cowardice. It is all about his run for Governor make no mistake. He was put in a pickle by this vote - "should I vote the party line no, or should I alienate the center and Republican constituencies who are the majority n the 63,000+ map by telling them they aren't smart enough to decide for themselves?" The Briarcliff and Tucker bills were put forth by the democrats to try and stop Lakeside period. End. Of . Story. I feel for the sincere people with both these groups as they have been pawns used by MMO and company who want nothing to do with new cities. Cheryl , the Dekalb democrat delegation is the most hyper partisan group in the legislature and I laugh at your fits about Millar's partisanship. He is probably the least partisan Republican in the legislature and that is not a compliment.
Atlantakiwi March 02, 2014 at 07:54 AM
Ditto that, L.A. And, Cheryl, Tucker came very late to the game. It was just recently when they hired the high powered lobbyists that they got organized sufficiently to push cityhood. And L.A. is correct when he says COBI was organized for one reason only and that was to stop Lakeside and by extension (b/c it was so late) Tucker. The Tucker folks may be lumped in to the stop cityhood movement but I think now they really would like to become a city. Unfortunately the time for negotiating with Sen. Millar and LCA is running short. They have a lot to lose and much to gain by coming to the table. Suspect it's their lobbyists holding out til the bitter end. The real shame in all this is the inability of the LCA and Tucker leadership to work all this out early on. With COBI dead in the water, Tucker and LCA had a real opportunity to present two great plans to the voters.
TruthWillSetYouFree March 02, 2014 at 08:20 AM
Atlantakiwi. The problem is Millar should of been advocating a city of Tucker because thats who he represents. Instead he has come in and land grabbed a large more wealthy area inside the perimeter that has no connection to his district. MY elected representatives are not against voting for a city. They are against voting for a city that does not represent our area (itp) that is financially weaker for us. So Millar is hurting my area and dividing the community of Tucker. He is cancer on the greater area. If he were just to support the two city solution his people would get their local control that they seek and have the support of the rest of our representatives.
Atlantakiwi March 02, 2014 at 08:59 AM
He didn't land grab anything. You act like this was some grand scheme on his part for money and power. Seriously? This has been nothing but a giant pain and diversion from other important legislation. He carried the bill because our own representatives would not - will of the people be damned. Sen. Millar has not divided anything. The leadership in Tucker did that all by themselves when they came so late to the game and refused to negotiate even with Comm. Boyer in trying to find a resolution and bring everyone to the table. Sen. Millar is carrying this bill because his constituents asked him to and because the leadership at LCA asked him to. When he was asked to carry LCA the Tucker people weren't even on the radar b/c they had not organized yet. The divisions you speak of are on the ground not with the elected officials who are simply trying to give us all a voice. Reminder: Sen. Millar did not come into this area and say "lets create a city."
lawson aldridge March 02, 2014 at 09:09 AM
Where has any Dekalb democrat legislator come forward and unequivically demonstrated support for the formation of any new Dekalb city? They are on the record as being against Dunwoody, Brookhaven, and before there was Briarcliff or Tucker, they were and are against Lakeside. They are for a moratorium on new cities and again Tucker and Lakeside bills were put forth to stop Lakeside- not to create two new alternative cities. It is all about protecting the democrat power base in Dekalb government. That is what the opposition to Lakeside is and will be about in the "no to Lakeside" group as well. Of course there may be peripheral folks who are against it because they think it is "another layer of government" or because of the unfounded fear of a tax increase but the driving force behind the opposition is Dekalb county government and the democrat machine.
lawson aldridge March 02, 2014 at 09:11 AM
Should read "Tucker and Briarcliff bills were put forward to stop Lakeside"
TruthWillSetYouFree March 02, 2014 at 09:25 AM
I just sat through a town hall where Oliver, Henson and Holcomb all said they would support the two city more feasible solution available. The LCA folks are all politicians, lobbyists and dirty robo callers. They are being funded mostly by people outside the community looking to grab our tax money. You really think these LCA people haven't promised them something on the back end for the 10's of thousands of dollars they have put into this thing?
TruthWillSetYouFree March 02, 2014 at 09:34 AM
KIWI. Where do you lie in each map?
Atlantakiwi March 02, 2014 at 09:59 AM
If the LCA folks are "politicians, lobbyists and dirty robo callers" what does that make the Tucker and COBI folks? Angels with halo's? I'm not formally involved in the LCA group but I do live in the center of their map so what happens directly impacts me. I just want a voice and a vote. I don't care how it gets to my ballot box. Oliver, Henson and Holcomb say they are for the two city plan b/c they know Monday is crossover day and while this type of legislation technically isn't bound by crossover, the chances of any additional legislation making it through both houses is not very likely. They are essentially kicking the can down the road two years. That's an appeasement tactic and a little pat on the head to their Republican constituents. Holcomb is in a tight spot. He will have some heavy opposition in a primarily Republican district this time around. And it's not a rookie with consultants who give bad advice. My guess is his days as a legislator are numbered.
Tom Doolittle March 02, 2014 at 11:47 AM
Kiwi--certainly a potential new "Republican" district covering the Lakeside boundaries would cement Holcombe's problems started by the last redistricting. The Republicans might even overcome the backlash from their own party for running a nasty campaign for an unqualified candidate by further stacking district. BTW--the loss of another Democrat hands a Supermajority to the General Assembly. That eliminates the need to provide Democrats handouts to provide the 2/3 majoity for constitutional wreckage.
Tom Doolittle March 02, 2014 at 12:00 PM
Kiwi--you say you "just want a voice for a vote". Does that mean you "want a chance to support a new city" or a "chance to exercise an opinion". Its interesting that people who support forming a new city cite the right to referendums, while they might not be so "constitutionally inclined" on a less impassioned issue.
Tom Doolittle March 02, 2014 at 12:06 PM
Lawson: are you saying that anyone who is against forming new cities (or at least cautious about them--and inquiring minds) are Democrats trying to hold onto power? Even if it IS solely about power, can you at least admit that Republicans GAIN power, or potentially so with each city that has been MAPPED and formed (the mapping in the case of Lakeside is the primary issue). Then of course, the question becomes whether assuming power (as opposed to retaining it via local delegation rules) over a county government via legislative action is legitimate in this state, given the principal of Home Rule.
Tom Doolittle March 02, 2014 at 12:16 PM
BTW Lawson--I've heard city-makers in general criticize anyone demurring on cityhood as being partisan and county government apologists. Those types do the cityhood movement a disservice by intentionally or unintentionally insulting people (the movement's presumed constituents and potential citizens and taxpayers)--and unnecessarily antagonistic. Note the difference between that criticizing PUBLIC OFFICIALS whose accountability is codified.
Atlantakiwi March 02, 2014 at 12:17 PM
Well, Tom, I guess I'm just a voter who is sick and tired of a disproportionate amount of my tax dollars going somewhere else besides my schools, my roads, and my police force. Lakeside got severely shortchanged in the renovation a couple of years ago as compared to other schools. If my inbox is any indication a good number of people in my neighborhood are really upset about their latest water bill and it doubling from the prior bill. While cityhood doesn't necessarily fix these issues it does allow a louder voice closer to home. Rader and Holcomb are not going to have an easy time facing the voters this go round. We are getting shortchanged on services while our taxes continue to go up. In DeKalb County you can't blame that on the Republicans.
Tom Doolittle March 02, 2014 at 01:30 PM
Wiki: I get it--people are angry. You're looking for someone to blame (you said that above). Unfortunately, its a truism that issues of anger (and fear) are too easily manipulated--and the mere attempts insult me. I'm a little (a lot??) nutso--I'd rather not be "managed"... particularly by media. You really hit it on the head for me when you so easily dismiss the "while cityhood doesn't fix these issues" realization--altho I give you credit for realizing that it doesn't. The message makers have succeeded in getting others to infer that it does--even to the point they really do think we'll be independent--that this is an independence movement--and worse its a liberty, nearly a civil rights issue. I just can't stand the premise of "the sale"based on unfounded promises...with absolutely no interest shown in detailing and qualifying what is being promised...or exhibit any understanding of the pitfalls--these are people who we assume actually know something. Well I know a heck of a lot--and that info isn't being presented. I've maintained over and over and over that I AM NOT AGAINST THE FORMATION OF CITIES--I'm interested in a consistently applied and well-detailed set of procedures; a look at the record of new cities to date (on more important and fundamental things than frickin' budgets and taxes); and a way for voters to make fully informed decisions; and if it comes to it, a referendum that reflects the complete will of the public. Believe me, all of these things have not entirely been in play sisnce the first new city was formed.
TruthWillSetYouFree March 02, 2014 at 01:35 PM
kiwi. So I am guessing you are ITP like myself. If thats the case why support LCA and not the more feasible COBI plan which is more beneficial for us. What benefit is there to us to include a area OTP that has lower property values and more crime? Why not have just a ITP city that would provide what your looking for in local control?
Tom Doolittle March 02, 2014 at 02:00 PM
Here's an example of what people don't understand (just one of so many). The real crime of the water bill increase aren't the charges themeselves--or the way contracts were let or whether stuff is getting built and built right. The crime is that the so-called "need" is contrived (and that's where our more "local" government won't be any different--all governments are operating on contrived needs). Here's how--and its hidden by all concerned, no matter what constituents they have--equal opportunity fraud. First--the primary pay-off is to bond lawyers--they are the ones who run the process, whether the "product" (wastewater treatment is expanded or not) is needed or not. They literally go out and invent a "need"--and hang onto it like rabid dogs. The current bond program was intiially envisioned in the late 1990's as a way to make room for new single-family developmemnt in South DeKalb--and really important you get THIS--sale of capacity to Rockdale and Henry. You can't tell DeKalb citizens that they're tax dollars are used as a justification for bond sales to provide capacity to people aren't backing the bonds -even tho presumably rates will be paid by Rockdale and Henry (that's not tracked BTW). So the whole story relies on an "expansion of DeKalb tax base" narrative. The work didn't get started in time to beat a huge downturn in home building in the early 2000s in "South County"--and it became obvious that the only way South DeKalb would develop would be with commercial and institutional users (mixed-use included). Well heck! You talk about something you can't sell--residents in South DeKalb "on the ground" who know there isn't any new residential development in their area being asked to pay for "water" expansion. So things got delayed until circumstances could be "storied" differently.
Tom Doolittle March 02, 2014 at 02:02 PM
What you need to know (Part 2): The 2008 downturn offered new "opportunities", repackaging as an "employment pulse" on the plus side and changing the project pachaging to "upgrade/improvement" vs "expansion"--and on the "threat side", the Ga EPD finally after 30 years decided to threaten fines over the South Sewer (sorry South River) and the bond market a "downgrade" commensurate with THAT. Whats' worse is--the same people who start all of this back in the 1990s are in place, whether Ellis or Jones or Levitan. They are the criminals, not Ellis, who inherited the underlying corrution--small fry. Why is this important? Because those are the guys that are going to fry your ass when you give then a new jurisdiction to PLAY WITH. Am I saying don't form a city? No! Am I saying find out who the real crooks are and jail them? Heck no! Its just business. What I am saying is--KNOW WHAT YOU'RE VOTING FOR...KNOW HOW THE GOVT YOUR'RE SUPPOSEDLY FREEING YOURSELF FROM is the same as what you're running to..and know what the terms of engagement are that you should set up to call your new govt on when it come up (given the fact that you won't really want to stop it--because it brings in "growth").
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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