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”.